June 18, 2011

Lost in translation

I’VE always loved traveling to new and exotic places, because of the cultural dimensions it opens up. Being in a new country, and meeting all sorts of nationalities keep me educated and well-informed of the goings-on in the bigger world. In this era of globalization, one cannot be too preoccupied with just local concerns.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Beijing upon invitation of the Department of Tourism. I was with my friend Art Boncato, former marketing manager of Marco Polo Hotel in Davao City, and who is now the regional director for the Department of Tourism’s Region 11, and a wonderful group of government and private tourism representatives.

I think Boncato is a good choice for the region because he has always been such a productive and diligent worker ever since I met him. For sure, he is the best person to market the region to tour operators and travel establishments here and abroad. In fact, the event I was covering in Beijing was the launch of the Davao Cultural Festival at the Marco Polo Parkside, ongoing until June 30.

(Of course, I am not surprised that Boncato works the way he does because his boss at the Marco Polo was none other than Halifax Capital chairman Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez, who was also my old boss at the Department of Agriculture and whom I had covered previously as a beat reporter back when I was still young and innocent to the ways of the world. When you have a boss like Sonny, you are forced to become smarter and tireless in your job...or face the consequences, hahaha.)

Unfortunately, for the most part of the trip, I was sick. I was battling a nasty cough and terrible colds and virtually sidelined for two-and-a-half days. It sucks to be sick, and all the more when you are in another country where only a handful speak English. Your patience is virtually pushed to the limit, and you either have to choose your words carefully and use the barest and simplest to get your point across, or die trying.

One time I was trying to explain to a waitstaff at a local roast duck restaurant that I didn’t order the bottle of Evian water that they gave me. Hello, Evian is expensive in any part of the world! There was no way I’d be paying for that! Maybe it’s the favorite bottled water of Americans and European tourists. Unfortunately for them, I’m a cheap Pinoy tourist.

It can be quite upsetting when there is no meeting of the minds on the ideas presented to each other, and I suppose this was why I really couldn’t recover from my illness much more quickly. (I woke up one morning without my voice actually, and to this day, my normally high-pitched soprano is still a bass. Ugh.) I was too stressed, wildly gesturing or trying to endlessly explain to the other person what I needed or wanted information on.

But despite the sometimes distressing moments, there were a number of instances of joy, as well. I found many Chinese, especially the younger generation, always eager to talk to me and willing to help me out any way they could. Of course, for the most part, they all wanted to practice their English on me, which made me even more enthusiastic in speaking with them to help them out in their pronunciations or vocabulary.

(According to my tour guide Lucy, they have to pass some English exams before they graduate from the university, but since they have no one to practice the language with, sometimes they tend to forget the words and meanings. But most of the young Chinese can read English well, and translate the words to their own Chinese characters.)

(With my new friends, salesladies April, left, and Mao-Mao, at the Silk Market. Photo copyright owned by Stella Arnaldo)

This was quite helpful because when I had to buy cough medicine, for instance, the hotel concierge, after Googling the kind I should buy at the pharmacy, wrote its name in Chinese characters so it would be easier for me to make a purchase. And even at the pharmacy, given a choice between two locally-manufactured cough syrups, the pharmacist earnestly indicated which had the more effective formulation by giving a two-thumbs-up.

Also, when I was going around using the subway, the subway guides were always helpful in pointing out what line to take whenever I approached them in a moment of confusion. One female guide in her 20s, wrote everything down for me—in Chinese script and English numerals—all the lines I had to take to make sure I got back to my hotel in one piece.

(An aside: the Beijing subway system is a marvelous mass of interconnectivity, which we should try to duplicate for our metro railway systems. Connections from one line to another are seamless, and all announcements of train stops are made in Mandarin and English so there is very little chance of a tourist getting lost. Also there is an illustrated map of the subway line where each station lights up as the train arrives at the said station.)

Lucy, my tour guide to the Beijing Acrobatics Show, and her driver Mr. Pei also went out of their way to give me a tour of the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest after the show. I had seen them in the daytime but these two architectural wonders are so much more gorgeous lit up in the evening sky. The latter wasn’t part of our itinerary but it touched me that they wanted to please me so I could take home good memories of Beijing.

Despite the language barrier, Beijing is quite an exciting and pleasant place to be. It’s no wonder so many foreign tourists have gone there, and companies have decided to set up shop. (Of course, the rising status of living of its residents makes them a prime target for foreign consumer goods.)

I will treasure the number of friendships I have formed with the tour guides and sales ladies at the Silk Market (most of whom I promised to bring more customers from Manila), and look forward to seeing them again when I return in the near future. I also cherish my hardworking cleaning ladies on my hotel floor, who never forgot to leave me six bottles of water every day because they knew I was sick, and had difficulty with my cough.

The often befuddling lost-in-translation moments are awkward for sure. But for the most part, I love the Beijingers for their eagerness to learn and educate themselves, and their motivation to please their guests and visitors. I can’t wait to go back.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on June 17, 2011)

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