Lost in translation

My first trip to China was to Beijing in September 2005. I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese at that time, but I had already made up my mind to study this beautiful language. So far, my paths have led me to Beijing only twice in my life, and I remember it as a very big, grey and smoggy city. You have to keep in mind that this was not Beijing as it is today, it was Beijing before the Olympics.

One day in September of 2005 the otherwise pitch-black sky was illuminated by the millions of light bulbs used in this city. I had been running around the city all day long, felt exhausted and was looking for the subway stop. I managed to find the street corner where the subway stop was supposed to be on my map, but I couldn’t find a sign or an entrance leading to the subway (this was also Beijing before the era of smart phones, not that I had a phone with me that I could use in China to begin with).

I asked a traffic police woman for the way, using English. Obviously she wasn’t able to understand me, so she asked a young guy in Chinese to help me out. But as it turned out, this guy didn’t understand English either. He gestured me to follow him, which I did.

We entered a big grey building that on the outside didn’t have any signs, so I assumed it was an apartment complex. We took the elevator to the 7th floor, at that time I was a bit weary as to where this guy would take me. As we arrived on the 7th floor, it turned out that there were small shops extending over the whole floor. I followed the guy to one of the shops, where he started telling his friends that I was lost (at least that’s what I assume he told them). They then called a friend who could speak English. Finally, at the other side of the line, I could hear somebody speak a familiar sounding language. I felt relieved. But as it turned out, with my hearing and the signal both being really bad, giving directions over the phone was not an option.

The only option left seemed to be to go find the next subway stop on my map. And this is what I did. Since this was Beijing, a city of more than 15 mio, getting from one subway stop to the next one by foot was probably like walking through half of Vienna. This time I was lucky though to find the subway that would take me back to my hotel right away.

You might have wondered why I didn’t just take a cab. Running around all day, I had spent all my money on buying a pair of fake shoes I didn’t even really want. I wasn’t sure how much it would cost to take a cab back to the hotel, so I thought taking the subway was the safer option.

As I found out later getting lost that day wasn’t even really getting lost. I was looking for the subway at the correct crossroads, but the subway had not been built yet (the map didn’t mention this though). It would take 3 more years until the subway line would be finished.

Have you ever been lost in translation? I’d love to hear your stories.

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