Lost in Any Language, Part 1: The Collapse of My Hindenburg of Hubris
Please enjoy this short series curated from years of travel and stupidity.
During my twenties, I spent a year living in Shanghai, China.
Initially, I found daily life overwhelming; and though I eventually adjusted enough to get by, even after I felt "settled," I still often had no idea what was going on. I really missed my family, but because of the steep learning curve, I told my sister to hold off on visiting until I had at least a toehold in the language and culture.
Having lived in Shanghai for nearly six months by the time she planned her trip, and feeling quite the expert, I couldn’t wait to showcase the ease with which I had adjusted to the city. As soon as she booked the tickets, I hatched my plans. I'd breeze through public transit, flaunt my fresh Mandarin skills, and wow her with my fierce chopstickery.
Though we could easily have taken a taxi on our first day downtown, I didn't want to drop the cash. What's more, I was proud of my ability to navigate Shanghai's labyrinthine public transit system.
After a few stops on the subway, I directed us to a bus route I’d only taken a few times before. Unfortunately, I missed our intended stop, but hopped off a short while later (when the bus attendant started yelling at us for riding past our fare) and attempted what should have been a simple backtrack on foot.
How it’s possible to go so utterly astray within a few city blocks is still mind-boggling.
But facts are facts.
Right on cue, a cold rain began to fall.
I had no idea where we were. Nothing looked familiar. We could have been on the moon for all I knew (assuming, of course, that the moon is a maze of noodle stalls, knockoff shoe stores, hole-in-the-wall tea shops, massage parlors, and fake-Rolex dealers).
I trotted out my Mandarin, asking passersby for directions, but nobody understood me. Even worse, I couldn't understand them.
I had no idea why my language skills weren't working. (Maybe they don't speak Mandarin on the moon.)
Perhaps if we had ducked out of the rain and had a cup of tea and a plate of dumplings, I could have regrouped; but this was more than a decade ago, and what I lacked in wisdom, I made up for with a pig-headed determination to stick with Plan A.
So I stood in the cold drizzle listening to Bethany helpfully suggest that the next day, we pin our destination on the outsides of our coats, like children sent out into the countryside by rail during the London Blitz.
My Hindenburg of Hubris was on its way down, imploding in a glorious ball of flame.
Knowing that enough was enough, I swallowed my pride and hailed a taxi.
But the day’s humiliations weren't over.
The first taxi driver we flagged down refused us service. Though he understood my doubtful Chinese, he still shook his head, flapped his hands, and sped off into the rain, looking annoyed.
The next driver was more charitable, taking the time to explain something to me in slow, measured tones—tones that I couldn’t grasp no matter how clearly he spoke.
Eventually, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck, he waved us into the cab, popped it into gear, drove around one corner, and immediately I understood.
We’d been only a few hundred feet from our destination.
Oh, the humanity.
I shelled out the cash, tipped our driver generously, and shuffled out of the cab behind Bethany, making a mental note to set aside scraps of paper and safety pins for the next day's outing.
Just in case.