My Chinese colleagues and also my students have all been very nice about helping me but it is also satisfying to make a successful foray to the stores by oneself. Perhaps I should rely more on others, but I am by nature disinclined to ask salesclerks for help. Is this shyness? Reserve? All I know is, I inherited this trait from my mother. Back home, I usually bumble around and give up and leave if I can't find what I'm looking for.
But in China, where I am an extremely conspicuous foreigner, my preference for shopping alone has gotten me into some ridiculous situations. At one mall in Zibo, I actually wandered around for ten minutes just trying to find the exit! There were "exit" signs everywhere, but they led to service corridors. Finally a salesclerk noticed that I was going in circles and looking frustrated, and he led me to the escalator, because the way out to the street was one level down. At another mall, I had a ridiculously difficult time finding my way down to the supermarket in the sub-basement. (I'm checking out a lot of different supermarkets mostly because of my on-going search for mustard. I never knew that mustard was that important to me until I couldn't find any.)
When I do ask for help to find a specific thing, it's much easier to find a sales clerk in China than in Canada. I rely on mime and gestures to let them know I need glass cleaner, hair spray and contact lens solution. So I wipe imaginary windows, wave my hand around my head while making schhhhhhh noises, and pretend to poke my finger in my eye. On separate occasions, of course. Not sequentially. That would look silly.
Most of the time, this works. I got a putty scraper and a curling iron this way, too. (I was really impressed by the lady who sold me the putty scraper). But waving an ear of corn and stirring imaginary powder into an imaginary pot did not successfully convey the fact that I wanted cornstarch.
And although I probably could make my meaning clear, I didn't want to mime my need for a toilet seat. So on that occasion I was with my "handler" from the institute where I work. (I needed a toilet seat because the landlord, designated villain of this blog, did not provide one). My "handler" is a thoughtful, and wryly funny guy and of course "handler" is not his official title. I mean that he is the fellow in the college administration who is in charge of doing the paperwork for all the foreign teachers and international students, helping them get settled, and dealing with their problems, such as not having a toilet seat on the toilet. Maybe "wrangler" would be a better term. Or babysitter.
So, for example, my "handler" wrote out my apartment address in Chinese and I carry it in my purse, along with his business card. Without written addresses I have great difficulty explaining to taxi drivers where I want to go. (I use the bus more and more, but without a car, it's sometimes more convenient to come home from the grocery store in a taxi, rather than try to jam oneself and one's shopping onto a crowded bus.)
Every “foreign expert” coming to China has to pass a medical exam. My age and health were against me when it came to finding a job in Korea but the bar for getting into China is a bit lower. In fact, the full medical exam was postponed until I was actually in China. My "handler" gave me written directions to the hospital in Chinese and told me not to eat or drink anything on the morning of the exam.
So at 7:00 am, , uncoffee’d and unbreakfasted, I hailed a cab and showed him the directions and he drove me into town, a 21 yuan ride (about $3.80). He dropped me off in a parking lot behind a tall building, with a lot of gesturing and speaking, but of course I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. I walked around front and the building was indeed a hospital, so I went inside and sat in the waiting area. I was early, so about twenty minutes passed while I waited for my "handler" to join me. He phoned and it quickly became apparent that somehow I had been dropped off at the wrong hospital. My "handler" said he'd drive over to pick me up and that's when we realized that I couldn't even tell him where I was.
So he asked me to give my phone to somebody passing by so he could ask them where I was. The first two people I approached in the hospital lobby refused to take the phone --and if course they didn't know why the strange foreign woman was handing her phone to them and I couldn't explain why – so I went to the pharmacy counter and one of the pharmacists finally reluctantly took the phone, and that only after I turned on the speaker so she could hear my "handler" speaking in Chinese.
We learned that I'd been dropped off in a completely different section of town, twenty minutes’ drive from where I am supposed to be. Still don't know why, but as I said at the outset, there will inevitably be problems when you don't speak or read the language. My "handler" retrieved me and took me to the correct clinic.
The exam itself was marginally more interesting than humiliating, but let's draw a skimpy hospital curtain over that part of things.