Conversations With Myself (or, How I Came to Sit at the Memoire Cafe, Enjoying an Iced-Coffee)

June 10, 2011

It was hunger, I think, that finally drove me out of my hot, muggy room, into the hot, muggy Beijing morning. I’d been awake since about 6:30 a.m., and by 8:00 a.m., even I’d had enough of my stalling. Armed with my Chinese phrases for the day (“I don’t understand” and “I’m sorry I don’t speak Chinese”) and a self-directed challenge to find breakfast, use my new phrases at least once, and by doing both, earn my reward of an iced-coffee, off I went. Dr. Z and I had stumbled across a Starbucks yesterday, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to “stumble across” it again. And, if you think by “stumble across” I mean “intensely search high and low for,” well, you might be right.

Anyway, relying on my memory is no easy task. Remembering landmarks isn’t the problem; rather, it’s placing said landmarks in a spatial relationship to where I’m headed that becomes the ultimate issue. So, while everything looked familiar, I still had no idea where I was going. Luckily, I was traveling in a straight line, up and down, then up again, then back down Jiuxiaqiao Lu, a broad, busy (read “harrowing”) road that make crossing intersections like a life-sized version of frogger.

Maybe I was just stalling again, I’d passed a handful of food stands and hole in the wall noodle places, but still didn’t have the nerve to bust out my handy phrases. After passing three sizable malls along my route, I thought, “this is ridiculous,” and catching sight of a small window where a man was waiting to purchase a breakfast “crepe,” I decided, “This is it. This is where I will showcase my verbal prowess AND have breakfast.” Actually, when I stepped up to the window, I had exactly 3.5 RMB (approximately $0.53 USD, and the cost of one crepe) in hand. I was half hoping I could get away with not saying anything at all. Looking bewildered is a dead giveaway that you’re a foreigner, that and hauling around a 1.5L container of water as if you were about to disappear into the Gobi instead of trying to find your way to SBucks. I’ve found that the look on my face automatically defaults to bewilderment the minute anyone tries to say anything to me in Chinese. With my neck craned and head cocked to the side, I imagine I must look something like a startled goose. I’m sure all she asked me was probably something like, “Just one crepe?” or, maybe even something more benign, like, “Hello.” Who knows, but I’m certain that whatever it was, it didn’t warrant the verbal incontinence I offered in return. Anyway, the exchange went something like this:

Woman: Hello
Me: Wo, Wo bu, wo bu dong. Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen! Wo bu dong. Bu! Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen! (Translates to: I, I don’t understand. I’m sorry I don’t speak Chineses. I don’t understand. No. I’m sorry I don’t speak Chinese)
Woman: (Shaking her head and gestured to a shaker full of red pepper flakes – apparently she just wanted to know if I wanted some on my crepe)
Me: (I sheepishly shook my head “no”)
Woman: (I think she asked me where I’m from)
Me: Wo sho mei guo ren (I am American)
Woman: something, something mei guo
Me: Mei guo
Woman: something, something (smiling), mei guo! (I’m just assuming she doesn’t get many Asian Americans buying crepes from her on a daily basis)

I came to realize that we were actually having two separate conversations that had somehow managed to intersect at two discrete points. Hey, that’s better than not at all, plus I got breakfast and earned my iced-coffee. And, when I finally walked away with crepe in hand and inordinately pleased at my effort, I was smiling, and if I’m not mistaken, so was she.

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