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Getting lost in Beijing & loving it ... sort of
By Edwin Maher (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-21 09:00

It's a year since I first arrived in China - a country I originally had no intention of even visiting. But have you ever heard strange "voices" telling you what to do? "This guy's nuts," I can hear you saying. Give me a chance to explain.

The scene is my home in the southern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. It's cold and raining outside, so for something to pass the time, I switch on my old shortwave radio, and turn the dial aimlessly. Through the static come voices speaking English, but at first I am not sure where they are from.

As I listen closely, the voices identify themselves. "This is China Radio International in Beijing, broadcasting to Australia." I had discovered the English service of China Radio International (CRI). These voices would not only change my plans, but my life.

First adventure

Voices are my trade. I have been a broadcast journalist all my working life, and at the time was happily working at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) voice training students of radio and television in the School of Journalism.

When the shortwave broadcast ended, I looked up CRI's home page on the web and impulsively sent off an email, asking if they would be interested in having me voice train their Chinese broadcasters.

Before I had time to realize what I had done, they responded positively and set the wheels of hiring me in motion.

"I can't speak Chinese," I told my new boss, Xu Huazhen on the phone. "Don't worry," she replied, "we all speak English."

With the SARS epidemic still not completely over, I was boarding a plane to Beijing for six months, my family waving goodbye. While sad to see me go, they were making sure I didn't change my mind at the last minute.

Since then I have trained, and sometimes changed, the sounds of my radio students in CRI's English department.

Last March I was hired by CCTV International to not only train their English language broadcasters, but became the channel's first non-Chinese news anchor. It has been an exciting time, but there's one student I cannot train. It's me. I have tried to learn the real voice of China, only to fail, try again, and fail once more. At times I have felt disabled in China - blind, deaf and dumb to its language.

I was a real dummy when I arrived. I boarded a bus near the Friendship Hotel where I live and asked in English to get off at Tian'anmen Square. Surely that most famous place meant the same in English as in Chinese. Maybe I wasn't saying it clearly. I produced my map, but it was all in English.

The conductor had no idea what I was talking about, and eventually found a passenger who pointed to the other side of the road. I crossed over and got another bus, but this time, no one could understand me.

It was a dismal start to my second day in China, but I wasn't giving up that easily. I eventually found the right bus, and an elderly man who heard me buying my ticket, made sure I got off at the correct stop. He couldn't speak much English, but followed me and pointed towards the famous square, its huge flags visible in the distance. I was elated and waved goodbye as I headed for the underpass.

Maybe I could find my own way around this foreign city after all.

At last I was in China's most famous open place. Walking back towards the city buildings, the noises from traffic and shop loudspeakers were so exciting, I found a pay phone and called my eldest son, Andrew, in Melbourne.

"Just listen to this," I told him, holding the receiver as far as the chord would stretch. "That's amazing," he replied. "Where exactly in Beijing are you?" "Haven't a clue," I replied, "but I have just been to Tian'anmen Square."

With growing confidence, I decided to take the subway home, not realizing the network didn't go that far. Impressed with the cleanliness of the station, I bought a ticket and boarded the first train that came along.

After a few minutes I asked (in English of course) a young man seated next to me where I should get off closest to the Friendship Hotel. Wearing a smart business suit and tie, he would surely speak English wouldn't he?

He couldn't understand me but seemed very concerned. I showed him the card which unlocks my apartment. It had all the details of the Friendship Hotel in Chinese characters. He looked at it, then his eyes darted to the carriage subway map. Next, he raised three fingers of his right hand.

In Australia, raising fingers at someone is not usually nice, but this man was smiling. At the next station he showed me two fingers. Now in Australia, that's really rude, but I got the message. When we stopped at the third station, he didn't just point to the door, but got up and took me out of the train, accompanied me to the top of the stairs, and out onto the street. Then he hailed a taxi and told the driver where to take me.

All this from a man who couldn't speak my language, and I couldn't speak his. I was now speechless, especially when he refused my offer of money. I felt somewhat embarrassed having even thought he would accept a tip.

This incident made it clear I had to get a grasp of Chinese quickly or my adventures might start turning into misadventures.

Back to beginning

I was so determined to learn, I hired a tutor who started with a 90-minute lesson. At the end of the first session, my head was thumping and my ears were ringing. That determination had been crushed, but I agreed to a second lesson.

It was no better. The changing tones, the pinyin sounds of the alphabet were a formidable challenge, and my efforts to repeat them accurately were dismal. At least there was no ringing. This time, my tutor's sounds simply went in one ear and out the other.

I explained that I would try to absorb his teaching over the next few weeks, and contact him when I was ready to resume. I never did. I was disappointed with my attempt, full of self doubt.

Was I too old to learn this difficult language? Should I simply give up? These and other similar questions came to mind. But maybe one of those "inner" voices was trying to reach me. "Keep trying," it seemed to say.

I decided to stop taking the CRI shuttle bus, not because of seeing the same foreign experts each day, but reasoned that if I used public transport, perhaps I could absorb better the sounds of the chattering Beijingers and maybe tune my ear to their changing tones. It was time to attempt the buses again. Surely I wouldn't repeat my Tian'anmen Square fiasco.

The next day I left my apartment at the Friendship Hotel, with instructions on how to catch a 717 bus to Muxidi, then the subway to Babaoshan where CRI is located. Getting aboard was an experience. I just allowed myself to be pushed by the human mass behind me.

This was peak hour and I had entered a whole new world. Unlike the CRI shuttle, this public bus was filled not only with a cacophony of voices, but people packed like a tin of sardines.

I nearly lost my balance as I reached for the handrail, but with no room to move, there was little chance of falling over.

But how could I reach the conductor to pay my fare? More to the point, I wondered, how could she reach me and the other new passengers. It was fascinating to watch as she squeezed her way along.

I looked and I listened. As the conductor approached, I said "Muxidi" to which she responded something like "ee kwai." I panicked, and stared into my wallet, taking up precious seconds of her time collecting fares. Someone next to me looked at my handful of renminbi and pulled out a 1 yuan (12 US cents) note. I had forgotten even the most basic words.

The helpful passenger stood next to me and made sure I got off safely at Muxidi. At which point, the others probably breathed a collective sigh of relief. The subway train came and I got off at Babaoshan, my mission completed. I had done it.

Getting back that afternoon was a different matter. I left CRI confidently, took the subway to Muxidi, but couldn't remember which exit to use. Taking a chance, I looked for the bus. When it arrived, I said to the conductor the one Chinese word I had been told would get me out of trouble - "Youyibinguan," which means Friendship Hotel.

The conductor beckoned me aboard, but 10 minutes into the journey, I had a feeling I was going the wrong way. The skyline wasn't even slightly familiar. At each stop, a recorded voice was obviously naming the stations in Chinese, followed by five English words, "Get off the bus now."

I started feeling anxious but stayed on, thinking the Friendship Hotel would appear soon. After almost 40 minutes I feared the worst. This time, everyone got off the bus. It was journey's end. I realized my tones must have been wrong and the conductor thought I had said the name of another hotel which was near the final stop.

I hailed a taxi, and when I said "Youyibinguan," I could tell from his reaction he knew where to take me. After all that travel from Babaoshan to Muxidi and now to this now unknown (to me) locality, I wondered where I was.

I soon found out. Less than one minute into the journey, the taxi passed a familiar landmark. It was the CRI building. I was back where I had started.

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