Saturday, 19 September 2009

Once Upon a Time in China

this supermarket kept me in coffee and chocolate - what more could I ask for?

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments in China, the moment when I first thought: I can do this, I can survive here, everything’s going to be fine. This epiphany didn’t happen over seeing one of the many wondrous historical sights, or contemplating the small scale diplomacy I was engaged with everyday. It happened over an alarm clock.

The purchasing of the alarm clock at the supermarket – my first unaccompanied visit – had been fraught enough. There had been extreme confusion over the method of having to pay: choosing the clock and communicating this choice through some comedy gestures, taking a handwritten slip to a booth, handing over my money and getting a my slip stamped, then returning to the electronics area to get the clock. Completing this process involved a lot of pointing, a lot of lost wandering, a lot of me thinking ‘I can’t understand anything, what on earth have I done coming to this crazy country, was I insane, when can I go home?’

the courtyard and entrance to the senior school building

So imagine my dismay when the clock stopped the next day. I was sorely tempted to just go back and buy another one, seeing as at least I now knew how this process worked. But…I hadn’t gone to China to teach English, not speaking any Chinese and with no teaching experience, to avoid doing things because I had no idea how to do it.

Armed with my phrasebook and the ability to say ‘ni hao’ and ‘xie xie’ (hello and thank you), I took the clock and my handful of receipts back to the store. I toddled up to what I presumed to be the information desk, and for once I was right.

I ‘ni haoed’ in my friendliest fashion and pointed to the ‘I need a refund, this is broken’ section in my phrasebook, then at the dysfunctional alarm clock. The staff behind the counter not unreasonably spoke to me in what seemed like tongues and then realised that the laowai who probably looked like she’d been smacked around the face with a wet fish didn’t speak any Chinese. They conferred amongst themselves.

The one who’d drawn the short straw of dealing with me came to inspect the phrasebook and the clock: I pointed and gestured again, then they conferred again. This happened a few times, and then they pointed towards the electronics department.

my street

After waiting for a member of staff to appear in the electronics department, I repeated the pointing routine. I’m not sure who was more over-awed: me at trying to deal with this through my jet lag and general confusion or the shop assistant at having to deal with a real, live foreigner.

After some more conferring and demonstration of why the clock was broken, and that another battery did not solve the problem, and a few members of staff trying, rather unsuccessfully, to appear to casually wander past, I had a new, working clock.

I left the shop on perhaps the most unexpected legal high I’ve ever had.


  1. Great story! ;-) Shame you had to get up early though! lol

  2. Wow! And I thought it was difficult to get a refund or exchange at Futureshop (electronics emporium staffed with cloned, babble-speak, 20-something clerks selling on commission).

    You're a brave woman!

  3. Congratulations! And I thought it was hard enough coping in France for the first time after 'studying' the language for 8 years.

  4. Ah, satisfying. Even in one's own coutry and language, getting a refund or exchange seems like a truimph. I can imagine being ecstatic if I had made such a coup in China!

  5. As you can tell, a year on and I still feel smug about it! Sometimes I think that actually language is less than half the battle, the real problem about living 'in foreign parts' is that what seems obvious to you (like you take your clock and pay for it at the till with your food) is clearly insane to the people in your host culture (why is the crazy laowai running off with the clock?).