Monday, September 24, 2007

I Know Enough to be Dangerous!

So there we were in DC's Chinatown, browsing in the one store that still hawks Chinese goods. (Chinatown has essentially been gobbled up by the downtown gentrification of the past decade. Although this has spelled the end of a "real" Chinatown, the change isn't all that bad. The riots of the 60s caused most of the area's Chinese population to move out to the suburbs, to places like Rockville, Maryland. That's why we have so much Chinese food and culture right on our neck of the woods. Anyways, all of that is a story for another day...)

As I wander toward one of the front counters, a woman who works in the store comes up to me and asks in broken English if I can help out this other man. This "other man" speaks no English whatsoever and has apparently come into the store needing help with directions. He and the woman in the store have called the person he is supposed to meet out in Virginia. (See, I told you all the Zhongguo ren have moved out of the city!) But neither of them can write down in English the name of the place where he is to take a taxi to meet this person.

Well, they didn't know it, but they picked the "right" one to ask for help! A chance to use my broken Chinese in a real-time situation! I get the information from the person on the phone and start using my little Chinese phrases to convey the meaning of what I have written down on the piece of paper the store woman handed me. This leads to additional questions and more baby Chinese answers from me. I'm just trying not to get run over by the "Mandarin train"!

Then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. Desi, the kids, and I wander back out onto the street and there is the guy I just helped, trying in vain to hail a cab. So back into action I spring, egged on by Desi, of course! A moment later, I've got a cab pulling up, I'm telling the guy to jump in the back seat, and I'm instructing the cab driver as to where his passenger needs to go. The driver then calls his dispatcher and they have a conversation in yet another language. (What was that language, Des? I was having enough trouble jumping back and forth between English and Mandarin!)

In the end, I was able to tell the guy how much his cab ride would cost (san shi kuai) and how long it would take (si shi fen zhong). Not bad for a high-level newbie (that's how ChinesePod classifies me)! Now, I just need about a thousand more of those kind of interactions and I might actually begin to really speak this language! For now, though, Desi and the kids tell me that the guy rode off with an ear-to-ear smile on his face. Hopefully, I made his day with that little bit of assistance...or maybe he was just amused at my efforts!

~Steve

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