Shopping in the Wrong Language

A Bit of Paper

On my third day in Beijing, I did get finally my visa to Mongolia. It was almost boring, after the complexities of the first two days (see Outer Mongolia via Beijing). I took the bus (again), walked into the Mongolian consulate and stamp! bam! (no smile, and no “thank you”), my passport was ready to  get me through immigration in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Of course, if I thought the adventures were over, was I ever mistaken!

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch…

Well, not the ranch, but the Holiday Inn Lido Hotel in Beijing. Now I had some time to kill. I figured this was a good chance to buy a little something for my wife. And I thought I would eat out. I mean “out,” as in OUTSIDE the hotel, although I wondered how I might fare linguistically. I had not found much English fluency in Beijing up to that point.

I had already eaten a number of nice meals in the Lido. And ironically, I had been able to speak quite a bit of Tagalog (a language I know from living in the Philippines) because most of the entertainment staff were Filipinos. Pinoys (Tagalog slang for Filipinos) are gifted musicians, and they speak English and know all the Western pop music. So they get hired all over Asia to perform in the hotels which cater to Western business clients.

When I arrived at the Lido, I heard a woman singing in the upper lobby lounge. She sounded much like Kuh Ledesma (the Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion of the Philippines). She and her pianist looked like they might be Filipinos, too. So I thought I’d check it out. After leaving my bags in my room, I went to the lobby to redeem my “free weak fruit juice” coupon. I arrived just as she finished a set. She went from table to table, greeting the guests, and tried to get them to stay for the next set.

She asked, “Where are you from?” When some men answered in German, she greeted them in German (to their surprise) and promised to sing a song in German, if they waited around. Japanese? Sure… greeting in Japanese (without even asking) and the promise of a song. You name it. When she came to me, she spoke in English, rightly assuming I was an American. But she wasn’t expecting my answer, “Kapanggagaling ko lang sa Maynila (I just arrived from Manila).” Moments like that and the look on Filipinos’ faces are just one of the many reasons it was worth the effort to learn Tagalog.

Filipinos Right and Left

The singer gasped and said, “You… you say that to my husband!” and called her accompanist Noel over. He laughed when I said (in Tagalog), “You wife was surprised that I can speak Tagalog.” Then he called another guy over and introduced him. He was also Filipino and worked for UNESCO and was enjoying his friends’ music. Turns out, the hotel was full of Filipinos, because the Chinese government didn’t trust them to live “off campus.” So they all lived in the hotel and signed for meals.

Noel informed me: The mariachi band playing in the Lido’s Mexican restaurant? Filipinos singing in Spanish. The “Indonesians” singing in the Taste-of-Southeast-Asia restaurant? Filipinos. Even the girl bowing and greeting guests with the wai (hands pressed together) at the Thai restaurant–Filipina.

But I never expected to use Tagalog, except with the Filipinos.

Steppin’ Out

I went across the street to a little souvenir shop. As I expected, the woman spoke no English. And of course, I spoke no Chinese. But there is a script when shopping. She knew how it works, and so did I.

Customer looks at item and picks it up = Customer might like to buy it and probably wants to know the price.

So she punched in the price on her calculator and showed it to me. I could read the numbers and I correctly assumed this to be the price. Following the script. And here’s where I had an idea, and some fun.

I bargained using Tagalog.

I knew she wouldn’t understand English, so why not use Tagalog, which she would understand no less? I said, “Mahal iyan!” (Oh no, that’s too expensive) and suggested a lower price.

Customer says something after learning the price = Customer is bargaining.

Knowing the script, she responded by punching in a lower number, even though she had no idea what I had actually said. Seeing her new, lower price, I knew we were both playing the same game. So I offered a slightly higher price than my first suggestion. She showed me another number. Then, when I offered another price, she tapped her calculator again emphatically, without changing the number.

Shopkeeper gives the same price again = Last price. They won’t go any lower. Do you want to buy or not?

So I bought it. And the little item is on our shelf to this day.

Eating and Photos – More Scripts

Then I went across the street and ate at a delightful Szechuan restaurant. Spicy Chinese food. I had been looking forward to that. The waitresses, all monolingual in Chinese, were dressed in ornate blue regional costume. This was in 1994, before I had a digital camera, and I could not ask which ethnic group their dress represented. But it was beautiful, like these sample images.

The menu had English under all the Chinese descriptions, so I could read the English and point to the Chinese and I ever got the dishes I had ordered!

Then it got weird.

For a minute I thought the girl knew my name (Bill). She keep repeating over and over “Bil? Bil?!” while I stared at her. But I finally realized she was asking if I wanted bil (i.e. “beer”).


After dinner, I wanted to take a picture of the girls in their fancy costumes. The old “hold up camera, ask Okay?” routine worked fine.

Then it got weirder.

The hostess wanted to show off her English. Apparently, she must have studied a bit. She walked over, pointed to my camera, and asked me a question (and come on, people, comment on this post and GUESS WHAT SHE MEANT).

She smiled sweetly and said, “I make you one body?”

Go ahead and guess. You know the script…

(coming up: Jump-Started Jet – All Aboard!)


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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14 Responses to Shopping in the Wrong Language

  1. Don says:

    Apparently my last comment didn’t post, so I’ll try to recreate it here :

    “Great post Bill – loved it. I can’t begin to list the complex tasks I’ve accomplished here through ‘scripted interactions’ when I lacked the language skills – gives me an idea for my own blog, which I’ve sadly been neglecting.

    Anyway, to your question: given the description of the interaction up to that point, I would guess she was offering to pose for another photo, or asking to examine the camera, but really I have no idea.”

  2. Livia says:

    She wanted to take a picture of you with the girls together?

  3. Valerie says:

    Yes, my guess is that she meant, “How about one with you guys together?”

  4. Janice Eisner says:

    How about “Take your picture, buddy?”

  5. Shelly Anderson says:

    I agree with the previous answers… I think she was offering to take your picture. This blog makes me regret (once again) that I have never learned another language. Such a waste. I am really disappointed in myself. Everyone should make an attempt to know a couple of languages. It’s unifying, apparently fun (as in startling hotel singers) and probably helpful in delaying Alzheimers… a win, win, win situation. 🙂

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks for stopping by to comment, Shelly! And you’re right about the answer. And it’s not too late to learn a language, although it would be a big commitment. And even if we all got Alzheimer’s, we could be senile multilingually. Seriously, I think reading and writing and continuing to learn and challenge the mind in ANY endeavor seems to help. (LIVIA… is that right?) (The commenter below, Livia, is a writing and neuroscientist!) Donna and I look forward to hanging out with you and Jim… (pretty) soon!

  6. Bill Davis says:

    Okay, folks… many of you guessed this right. Good job! The hostess was asking if I wanted to be included in a group shot with the waitresses, and offering to take the picture for me.

    Livia, maybe you can comment if my linguistic reasoning about this here is correct or not…

    I really haven’t learned any Chinese, but I have messed around with both Thai and Vietnamese in my linguistic studies. These languages use noun “classifiers.” So where English might say, “two horse-carts,” they would have “horse-cart two vehicles.” And for “three people,” Vietnamese would say (literally) “people three bodies.”

    So my GUESS here is that Chinese does something similar, using the classifier “body” for living things like people (actually Palawano does something a bit like this, but that’s another blog, maybe… I feel a Wednesday Word coming on…)

    If I’m right, the hostess was saying, in essence, “I will include you (i.e. make you one of the persons, i.e. “bodies” in the photo).

    Either way, it was a great photo, but before the digital age, so it is buried in a box in storage somewhere. You’ll all just have to take my word for it!

    • So my guess (and take with a grain of salt cuz I speak Chinese at the five year old level) is that you can refer to a group of people as a “body” of people in Chinese. So by one body she meant the group.

      • Bill Davis says:

        Thanks, Livia! Five years has me beat by about, oh, five years or so. I bet your intuition is probably valid. Although I can, as you suggest, add a bit of salt (instead of MSG).

        So it seems that maybe the hostess was using “you” plural when she said, “I’ll make you (plural) one body (group).” Interesting. Ah, the ambiguities of English!

  7. Pingback: The Vase You’ve All Been Waiting For… | Bill Davis' Words

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