I have decided that every single human should, at least once in his or her life, spend some time in a place where s/he is “the other.” Where you don’t speak the language or understand the customs and you live with the constant knowledge that you could offend someone without meaning to, and have no means by which to explain yourself or your actions. It forces you to slow down, look around, and get in sync with the rhythms of your new surroundings—without (as I always do) trying to control the process or the outcomes or even your own feelings.
Yesterday found me in a restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet book on Beijing. No one there spoke English, the menu was entirely in Chinese, and all I had was my “Concise Guide to China” with helpful phrases such as, “Can you recommend something good?” and “I would like some noodles please.” Oh Man! What a scene! I ended up having ordered about 6 dishes without knowing it. They had brought a pot of tea but because I could touch the outside of the pot without flinching I did not drink it because I couldn’t be sure it was fully boiled, and therefore safe. So I ordered the only bottled thing on the menu: beer. Yeah baby! Nothin’ like a liter of beer at 11:30am! Nice. Started eating a dish that I only milliseconds later realized contained uncooked vegetables (a one-way ticket to a week-long ride on the porcelain bus) and panicked. So immediately drank a half liter of beer in the desperate hope that any potential bacteria would drown hard and fast like little microscopic drunkards. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to note that my “Beer as Cipro” plan worked beautifully. My gastrointestinal health is intact, and I will accept the Nobel Prize for Science as soon as I get home.
I bring up the restaurant not only to share my beer story, but to share that a) the entire meal cost about $8, and b) I obviously did something to offend the waitress that I still can’t figure out. All was well until I asked for the check. And then it went downhill. She seemed not so much mad as offended, but try as I might, I could not figure out all day yesterday what I might have done. I probably will never know, but I hate that the only American she has ever met will now be in her memory as a jerk of some kind. Then I bought some bottled water at a Quik Mart (yes they have quickie marts even in China---is no corner of the earth safe?!), and I did not realize that little bills with a “1” on them are not the same as the big bills with the “1” on them. The woman was sooo over me, as were all the people waiting behind me, as she was barking, “Yi! Yi!” at me (meaning “One! One!”) and I’m standing there looking like a shmo thinking, “I’ve given you a WAD of ones, lady! A veritable wad of ones!!” Only, I had given her the paper currency equivalent of 60 cents when what I needed was a dollar. So I gave her a 100 yuan note, which is, like, $12 but a huge bill to break here. So then she started checking it to see if it was counterfeit, she is pissed that I’m throwing big bills around like I’m god’s gift...meanwhile the whole line hates me and is no doubt thinking “stupid foreigners. Why don’t they learn the language?!”
So—as Norm Petersen said on Cheers, “It’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing milk bone underwear.” That was my yesterday. Oh well. What can I do but simply resolve to be nicer to the next non-English speaking visitor to DC who holds up the line in the store because they can’t figure out the currency, right? And today is a new day! I am having dinner with a friend of a former coworker who is American and came here after graduating from college. We are going to do dinner and drinks, and little does she know, but she will be my little window into China just for one evening. I have so many questions, so many things I want to understand. Especially the money. Gotta figure out the money…
Today is the Temple of Heaven (not a nudie bar but a temple near the Forbidden City), and tomorrow is the Great Wall tour to, of course, Badaling. Since I am just my own clueless self for the rest of today, I assure you that my cross-cultural Inspector Clouseau-style offensiveness will continue unabated until my dinner companion sheds some light for me tonight. Which means, to your great good fortune, that I will doubtless have additional stories to share on my Cluelessly Creating Ill Will tour of China. In the meantime, it is 11am here--and you know what that means: it's Beer Time!!