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.
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!)