Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Entering the Shanhaiguan Historical Musem (I think)

When I finally made myself give up on that "delicious" breakfast, Driver came up to plan my day with me.

The night before, I had presented him with a page in my notebook on which a friend had written instructions to find me a hotel. From the existence of Hanzi in my notebook, Driver seems to have concluded that I knew Mandarin. 

When I finally convinced him that "Wo bu hui schuo putonghua," he decided that I must know how to read and write, but not pronounce the words. So all day, he would grab my notebook from me and write long passages, then pronounce them to me VERY SLOWLY — as if that would help. "Wo bu dong," I told him again and again, "Wo bu ning bai." Whereupon, with paternal patience, he would grab the notebook from me again and begin writing what I suppose was a synonymous phrase — all the while pronouncing it to me VERY SLOWLY. It didn't help.

Finally, in a gesture of supreme, impatient indulgence, he grabbed up a glossy tourist brochure and pointed to a couple of possible destinations. It was printed all in Chinese, no English at all, so I couldn't really tell what he was pointing at, but the first place looked like a historical museum, so I nodded. He shuffled me into his car.

Turns out the historical museum was maybe half a mile away — easily walkable, had I known where I was going and what I was doing. Driver opened the car door for me, gestured for me to exit the car, and pointed me to a window where I was supposed to buy a ticket for thirty kui, in order to see I-knew-not-what.

No one spoke a smidgeon of English, not even the number-words. No one could say "Ticket," or "Over here." No one could tell what I meant when I asked "Museum?" And for sure no one understood when I pointed to something and asked "How old is that?"

When my grandfather was ancient and fragile and Alzheimer's had long-since stolen his comprehension, I watched him be pushed and walked from his room to the bathroom or the dining room in the old-folks home, guided like the stone in a Curling match. I felt a bit like that. I saw the number "30" amid a sea of meaningless characters, so I grabbed out thirty kui and stabbed my hand in someone's direction, and she traded it for a glossy ticket, all in hanzi. 

I stumbled toward what I hoped was the entrance, haltingly, half-expecting someone to shout angrily that I was going the wrong way — which, of course, I wouldn't exactly understand, but would have to guess from their anger and then judge the rightness of my corrections by the decrease in their anger.
Hovering around the entryway to the museum were four or six young girls — tour guides, apparently — garbed uncomfortably and traditionally and, I strongly suspect, wishing they could shuck their gowns for a pair of blue jeans 
and a tee shirt with Mickey Mouse on it. When I brought out my camera, they hobbled swiftly out of sight. My camera caught one of them before they all escaped.

I hadn't a clue what sort of compound I was entering, other than that it had a strong appearance of authenticity. Authenticity of what, I don't know. I'm pretty sure there wasn't a ticket window here, back when this was... whatever-it-used-to-be.

My arrival had caused a frenzy of hiding among the traditionally-clad ladies, off to the right of the picture above, in a deep alcove. The one who seemed to hide deepest in the shadows was the one who eventually got dug out by her colleagues, for apparently she was known to speak some little phrases of English. She appeared, eventually, with profoundly shy reluctance, to announce that "I will be you guide," in about the same tone as I might say, under the right provocation, "I will help you pick poison-ivy leaves."

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