full circle

the first time i met rhea, i remember asking her if she had ever written any youngblood article. her full name, afterall, sounds familiar. we were then on our first day in one of our communication classes. it may have sounded like a lame pick-up line but really, it was just an honest-to-goodness attempt to strike up a conversation; as a journalism student then, i was only curious.

anyway, around three and a half years after that initial meeting, i'm getting an answer. here's rhea's youngblood article published yesterday in the inquirer. it's about her trip to china last october.

by the way, i'm not muslim, and i'm not the colleague she's talking about. read on:


By Rhea M. Alba
Last updated 01:14am (Mla time) 12/28/2006

Published on Page A11 of the December 28, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

I AM on a 24-hour train ride from Beijing to Guangzhou, China, as I write. My whole body is still stiff from running around the station while lugging over 28 kilos of baggage. And to think that just a few minutes ago, my colleague and I almost missed this train.

We had been delivered to what we thought was the right train station, until we found out, 30 minutes before our scheduled departure, that the Beijing Railway Station we were supposed to go to was on the other side of the city. After making a thousand desperate gestures and spending 135 yuan, my colleague and I finally arrived and boarded this train.

Unfortunately, since we were the last two persons to get in and we had no idea how to negotiate using Mandarin, we have no choice but to take the topmost bunks in a three-layered, prison cell-like structure that is now our cabin. It's not exactly the most comfortable place to be in, especially when you are sharing it with four other people speaking a language you cannot understand. And so we are left with the challenge of doing a careful balancing act every time we need to go down our beds to eat, stretch or pee. We cannot sit up straight, lest we bump our heads against the ceiling. And I'm a little too close to the ultra bright fluorescent light, guaranteeing a sleepless trip the rest of the way.

All this happened or is happening because I don't know how to communicate in Chinese. But it's only now that I have come to realize that in the past few days, I have survived by engaging in a seemingly endless game of charade with almost everyone I have to deal with.

I used to think charade is just a game for kids or noontime show stars who play it as if it's the most intellectually stimulating and entertaining game in the world. But because of my stay here and the dire circumstances I've gone through, I have become the newest recruit to the charade club. To find a shopping center, for instance, I have to take money from my wallet, point to my T-shirt, put them together and pray the other party understands enough to know that I want to go to a clothing store.

I have been lucky enough to have learned a few Chinese words that allow me to order food in a restaurant. For instance, I know that daocha stands for fork and knife, which is important if you are tired of using chopsticks. Bingshui means iced water, which is essential to know because their drinking water is normally served warm. But when we come to the main course, we have to check out the food to see if it is suitable for my Muslim friend. Whenever we are in doubt or we don't know what to order, we settle for chicken, but we have to do it by flapping our arms.

To ask whether a place of interest is within walking distance, I let my index finger and middle finger do the walking on my palm. But after walking non-stop in such a big, foreign city, I usually end up making imaginary driving motions to signify that I want to get a cab. The next step? I simply give the taxi driver the hotel's card.

It's a good thing that nodding one's head or making the thumbs up sign are also signs of assent or approval here. In fact, they are the gestures I eagerly seek after a long, tiring day.

Of course, I also had some misses while playing charade with the Chinese, because as my English teacher in high school used to tell us, "Actions speak louder than words--but they are not as clear." One time, my colleague and I almost got lost after taking a taxi. Because it was so dark, all buildings and Chinese lanterns looked the same to us. It turned out that we had been dropped on the right street but at the wrong hotel. Luckily, we only had to walk a few meters in Beijing's freezing weather.

When I joined a group tour to the Great Wall, I could not understand a thing because the tour guide spoke in Chinese all the time. A Chinese guy knew a bit of broken English, but he couldn't keep pace with what the guide was saying.

It was worse when we visited one of the Ming Tombs. I didn't know why all the Chinese tourists had a frightened look on their faces, and why the Chinese student I was walking with shrieked whenever I would step on a line or stone slab. I supposed it had something to do with feng-shui, burial rites and what-not, but no amount of hand movements or facial expressions could get me the information I wanted. Which was just too bad, because the English captions offered little by way of explanation as well.

Some people would say we should have purchased an English-Mandarin phrase book, but we did and it wasn't of much help. Then we should have hired an English-speaking tour guide, right? But looking back, I feel that aside from meeting new friends and seeing the historical sites of China, the curious charades we were forced to play made the experience more memorable for me (we couldn't afford the second option anyway). It forced me to become more creative in thinking of ways to express my thoughts and feelings. I've also realized that my ability to speak in English doesn't guarantee survival in other places. Sometimes, it's more important to hone communication skills that are beyond words to get a message across.

I'm glad that this train ride is about to end in a few hours because I'm so excited about the next thing that I have to do: move my right hand in an upward, diagonal motion and flash a big smile.

See you in the Philippines!

Rhea Alba, 22, is an MA Community Development student at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She was in China for the 2006 Asean Youth Camp.

simulblog with pics at: driven 2

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