Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bar of Babel

I had an interesting experience on my way home from work today, the first day of the new semester. 

You may know that I’m now living out in the Dalian Development Zone, about an hour’s drive from the university campus where I teach. My drive home takes me right past Five Color City, the bar district in the Development Zone. Today was my LONG day of teaching (8 AM to 8:30 PM), so I decided to stop in for a beer to reward myself and relax a bit. I’ve only been to that district a few times, so generally when I go I like to have one drink at a bar I already know, and one at a bar I don’t know.

The first one I stopped (the bar I know) at was a really nice little bar called Tiffany’s Girl Bar. The name is sadly misleading, as there should be a hyphen between “Tiffany’s” and “Girl." It refers to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — “Tiffany’s-Girl” — whose pictures are all over the walls. The first time I went there, I was somewhat hopeful that this would be a girl-bar owned by someone called Tiffany. But no, that would have been a very different experience.

The manager is a really cool woman with whom I enjoy conversing in Chinese. In fact, the only reason I went in that bar in the first place, a month or so ago, was that I saw her out front on at opening time on an evening when there’d been an ice storm. She was down on her hands and knees, carefully chipping ice out from between the bricks of the walkway to the bar. That kind of attention to detail is unbelievably, extraordinarily rare in China, a country where the guiding philosophy seems to be “There are too many of you, so who cares if you slip and kill yourself?” I was sufficiently impressed that I decided to reward this fastidious bar manager with a sale. I was even more impressed with her professionalism as I saw how she ran the bar. If I ever had a business that needed a manager, I would try to hire this woman.

Anyway, I had my one beer there, then went to check out the bar just across the street. It was a somewhat intimidating place without any windows, just a big, heavy-looking metal door that looked like it might be the back alleyway door to a warehouse in the Bowery. I almost didn’t want to go in, but I figured what the hell, if it was too scary inside I could always leave.

Inside, it turned out to be a beautiful, inviting space done up in Japanese style, and indeed the only customers were two relatively elderly Japanese guys drinking sake and chatting with two beautiful waitresses. I sat down next to the Japanese guys, and there ensued my strangest Tower of Babel experience to-date.

The younger of the two waitresses (also the prettier — stunning, to be precise) spoke reasonable Japanese, but had forgotten most of her English. The other one spoke a little more English, but not quite as much Japanese. One of the two Japanese guys spoke a tiny bit of Chinese, and a tiny bit more English. The other guy seemed to know little of either language.

The Japanese guys clearly were regulars, and big spenders, but all four of them were happy to have an American join the mix. So the stunner occasionally would interrupt her conversation with the other guys to try to talk to me — but invariably she would bust out with a string of Japanese, the only language in the room that I don’t know. 

The one Chinese guy would then translate her Japanese into broken English. Then the other bar girl translated the first girl’s Japanese into Chinese (which, after all, was BOTH of their native language, so it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if the first girl had just spoken to me in Chinese!).

All four of them enjoyed trying out little phrases of broken English: “What-a you-ah name-uh?” “Drink-ah wine!” None of them really spoke enough to be conversational, though the one Japanese guy came closest. (He did have that stereotypical Japanese lispy accent, though, with “flied lice” and w’s for r’s.)

I had some reasonable conversation with the two bartenders, especially the one who wasn’t trying so hard to speak Japanese. 

Then the other girl with the good Japanese would translate into Japanese, the guy with some English would take a stab at re-translating it into English and/or do his own Japanese translation, and the bar girl would either confirm or deny the accuracy of his translation. Once in a while one of them would turn back to me and ask a question in English or Chinese, to make sure they’d understood. Or the Japanese guy would ask the Chinese girl a question in Japanese or Chinese, when he didn’t know some of the Chinese vocabulary I was using. It was like a linguistic Escher drawing, or an other-worldly echo-chamber.

“You speak-a Chinee welly fast-uh,” the Japanese guy complained teasingly, with a big, complimentary smile on his face.

I’ve had conversations before that were half in English, half in Chinese, because there was some other foreigner there who didn’t understand Chinese. I’ve had plenty of conversations in Chinese that probably should’ve been in English, because the girl I was chatting with had better English than I have Chinese. (I’m often selfish that way: I’d rather work on my Chinese than help her work on her English.) But this was the first time I’ve experienced that bizarre crosshatch of mismatched linguistic incompetencies.

Actually, it was kind of sweet. Everyone was relaxed and playful and having fun. I was beginning to think I should make this a regular hang-out, until I finished my beer and asked for the bill.

The first bar charged me about $4.50 for a single bottle of Qingdao beer — pretty steep, but not totally out of the question. The second bar charged, for the same beer, a whopping 70 rmb — something like $12!!! So sadly, my new Japanese friends will have to drink without me from now on.

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