I was a fish out of water, like a mermaid without a rock. People were crawling around me like ants. Most of them would have furnished me with the key information I required in two shakes of a lamb’s tail but I just couldn’t crack the communication code. I must have been in a very central location for the crowd was beginning to thicken, I didn’t know why then, I did later. Space was at a premium. It was a bit like Piccadilly Circus on a summer Saturday afternoon, you had to weave your way in and around bodies on all sides. Many of the newcomers must have just come from a metro station. That would make sense. There has to be one nearby even if I’ve drifted away from the one I was looking for. I’d never really fathomed that deceptive word surreal before but now it wasn’t just sinking in, I realised my situation was the epitome of all and each of its subtleties.
You think any of these guys speak English? No way!
The street was awash with colour. There were flags, banners and pretty Chinese lanterns hanging everywhere. Immediately I guessed there was some sort of festival in progress because during the entire week I was here, I’d seen nothing like this. I was literally rubbing shoulders with people and I was so close to them we were almost physically intimate and yet mentally it was like the Berlin wall. Mutually impermeable minds, people centimetres together but worlds apart, so near and yet so far. Although the solution to my dilemma was no more than a finger pointing in the right direction, I was unable to conceive a way to extract this information from the multitude of human activity that share this tiny universal home with me. They weren’t Martians, I wasn’t a monkey. I was at the head of the food chain along with them. We were primates of the highest order. But were we no more than just humanoids to each other? Surely not, Heaven forbid! They procreated the same way and they went to the loo the same way. They had eyes, ears, noses, legs and heads and shoulders just like me and most importantly they had fingers to point the way and tongues to talk the talk. There was virtually nothing to differenciate us on the face of it (oops, face… well, maybe that but that’s all). What’s more, we were all inside the same nanoscopic capsule hurtling through space so fast we couldn’t fall off, as long as we only belonged to the physical dimension at any rate. And yet my life was an even more minute microcosm than the one we shared, as though it were some subdivision of it. Indeed it was.
In spite of all these attributes we had in common, I was totally incapable of conveying to somebody, anybody on the other side of the great language divide that I needed a train. I was unable to penetrate their brains and enter their minds in order to express my simple need which could not be expressed by desperation alone. Many people smiled at me when I asked “are you well?” (because that’s what ni hao means generically after you get past the informality of Hello, when addressing friends and acquaintances). In a crowd as dense there wasn’t much room for them to run away and a pitiful, if somewhat nervous, smile would crease their lips, especially the ladies’, it was their only option. It was ironic. I felt a proper Charlie, for when it came down to it I was probably the only person around who knew for sure that I wasn’t really mad, just desperate which makes you do mad things.
THE HOT DOG VENDORS
There were makeshift hot dog stands located at short stretches along the side of the road vying for space with the crowd.
Their owners were wedged between the wall of the building and their flimsy wooden-counter structures, some covered with canvas awnings. Others were just table-like, shaky stands which threatened to fall asunder every time there was a sudden crowd surge, prompting the vendors to be vigilant and to hold on tight to their wares in the event of a crush. Such was the chaos that at any moment, those waiting to be served at the front of the stand could be jostled and pushed by those standing behind or from the passing horde and the whole lot could come tumbling down around them.
I managed to break loose over to the side next to one of those rough and ready stalls and make a bit of room for myself. This not only gave me the chance to size up my options regarding the direction to take but it gave me precious breathing space. Suddenly I almost fell over because I stood on one of my shoelaces which had come undone and I had to bend down to tie it. As I was doing so I looked up to ask a passing Chinaman, educated type with a brolly, struggling against the flow in the other direction if he knew where the metro was. He stopped, looked at me, frowned, didn’t understand me and continued his way leaving me like an injured animal lying in the gutter. As I straightened up and considered moving either one way or another, it occurred to me I should have followed him, it made sense. But I was being jostled again and all of a sudden he was gone. “Probably to the metro” I sighed. The vendor began announcing his fare to all and sundry despite the fact that he was climbing the walls serving at the same time. He was helped by a little boy who wrapped the hot dogs, which were placed in round rolls, in a paper napkin and handed them to the customer while he himself dealt with the money.
As though not to be outdone, a competing trader closeby called out Haipat which came across loud and clear several times, business was brisk all round. It struck me that Haipat must have meant hotdog. Well, that would be two Chinese expressions in the bag. Clever me, ni hao and haipat. Big deal! But that’s me just jumping to conclusions as I am wont to do, probably barking up the wrong tree as usual. People were buying the English equivalent of hotdogs. It struck me that haipat would be more of an appropiate name than its English counterpart, which was a misnomer anyhow. In English a hotdog had nothing to do with a dog. Huh, I bet dog it was in China, whether hot or cold. Ughh! From the stories I’d heard, no way would I be putting one of those anywhere near my mouth.
I was surrounded by people again and they were elbowing and shouldering me forwards from behind, it was easier to move with the flow. Again the crowd got denser. Another subway train arrival, I guessed, but where was the metro?
I wanted to be below ground like these guys. They’d soon be coming to join me. But where did they exit the metro from?
to be continued…