I never thought I’d win a trip to China at a charity auction. But when the auctioneer boomed “SOLD," I quickly channeled “Foreign Babes in Beijing” (a memoir by Rachel DeWoskin) and a harrowing fourteen hours later embarked on an ambitious 12-day trip to the Orient.
Fully embracing my new ambassadorial role, I memorized phrases like “Xie Xie” (Thank you) and “Wo ai Ni” (I love you) in Chinese to help navigate compliments to local chefs, tip taxi drivers, and show a general appreciation of service in a country still sweetly surprised by the presence of North American tourists. But before I could break out my newfound vocabulary — I found myself lost.
Beijing is a positively ancient city, and the epicenter of culture in China. It’s home to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. But when I stumbled into one of the city’s oldest Hutongs (a residential neighborhood) real culture shock set in.
China built its capitol (Peking) around the Imperial Palace, and arranged the residential areas according to social class. Aristocrats lived closest to the palace. High-ranking officials and wealthy merchants lived nearby. And furthest from the palace, on the very outskirts of town, lived the commoners.
Neither tourism nor technology has reached this part of the world, and by consequence not one of these souls could actually speak English. Thus began a series of gestures that included one intended to ask if it was best to “walk or drive?” but was misinterpreted as dance steps the gathering crowd happily emulated. The reverse moonwalk had arrived in Beijing.
If charades presaged our spoken languages nearly 5000 years ago, my excursion in the hutongs remind me that communication reaches far beyond mere class. Its the act of conveying meaning — not just through signs and symbols and semiotic rules — but through unexpected connections in the unlikeliest of places.