Monday, December 7, 2009

Adventures in Kunshan

Today's adventure was once again based on a shopping trip, but this time closer to "home" as it were. My companion (DC) and I decided to visit some of the local stores in Kunshan.

I stopped by the hotel front desk mid-morning armed with the business card of a local DVD dealer who came highly recommended. The address was written in Chinese characters. The hotel manager gave me directions (the shop is only a short distance from the hotel) and at my request, wrote the street name in English on the card. We discussed my desire to go to a bookstore near Tinglin Rd so I could pick up a Chinese-English dictionary to complement my English-Chinese dictionary. I remembered a bookstore about a block or two from Tinglin Rd. I also intended to revisit a few shops along Tinglin Rd. She mentioned the name of the street for the bookstore and it sounded familiar so I assumed it must be the same bookstore I remembered from my last trip.

DC and I planned to meet at 12:30. I made use of the available time by looking up the area on Google Maps and familiarizing myself with the lay of the land. I noticed the street name the hotel manager mentioned was *not* where I remember the book store, but it was only a block from Tinglin Road so I didn't worry too much about it. DC and I met in the lobby, as agreed, and I stopped by the hotel manager's desk to get her assistance with the taxi. She wrote out the address of the bookstore (in Chinese characters) on a sheet of paper for me to show the driver. The concierge called a cab and we were soon off on our Sunday adventure in Kunshan.

Sure enough, when the driver dropped us off in front of the bookstore, it was not the same bookstore. This bookstore was much larger. The first floor was filled with Chinese people and Chinese books. I headed straight for the service desk. Before I got there, the poor clerk's eyes grew wide and she called for reinforcements. I suppose she could tell by looking at me that we'd need a translator. I asked if they had Chinese-English dictionaries, using my English-Chinese dictionary as a sample of what I was seeking. After a round or two of clarification she informed me that I'd find what I was looking for on the first floor. DC and I circled the first floor. Fortunately, all of the section headings had English as well as Mandarin text so we were able to determine that there were no dictionaries on the first floor. After studying a map of the store, I realized the clerk had probably said "fourth floor" not "first floor" so we escalated ourselves up a few flights and found what we were looking for.

With dictionary in hand we trudged back to the first floor to check out. But first, we went back to the service desk to ask if they had street maps of Kunshan. It turns out they do, but the text is all Chinese characters. Unphased, I purchased one for future reference. Since we aren't able to actually read the map, we ask for directions to Tinglin Rd. Fortunately another customer had far better English skills than the clerk and he eagerly jumped to our aid. We were only a block from Tinglin Rd so the directions were straightforward ("go to the end of the street, turn left, then right"). Meanwhile, a different clerk took the street map of Kunshan and consulted with DC - pointing to one spot "you are here" and another spot, "Tinglin Lu". We left the store highly confident in our ability to find our desired destination. Before we got to the end of the block I'd regained my bearings, recognizing the intersection ahead.

We walked the length of Tinglin Rd and doubled back, stopping at several stores and doing a bit of shopping. The details don't matter so much as the general entertainment value of shopping while communicating through the English-Chinese dictionary. What impressed me the most was how often we inspired the sales staff to overestimate our ability to understand their native language. In general, everyone was very friendly and gracious in their efforts to communicate. At one shop, as I was pulling out my brand new Chinese-English dictionary to hand to the proprietor so she could look up the Chinese words and I could figure out what she was saying…another customer jumped in and translated. Although relieved, I was also disappointed. It turns out we were getting drying instructions for a specialty hairbrush. It might have taken an hour to work through the translation.

Once we'd made our purchases on Tinglin Rd. we headed back to our hotel. I'd already determined that the walk was comparable in length to our trek from the day before and the weather was delightful - perfect for a Sunday afternoon walk through the city. The first stretch was familiar to me because I'd walked that route several times during my stay at the Swiss Hotel. Once we passed the Swiss Hotel we were back to having an adventure. It wasn't a wild adventure, mind you, but it was new territory. As planned, the route took us past the recommended DVD store. We browsed for a while (~an hour) and made our purchases. Of all of our shopping efforts I suppose buying DVD's was the most straightforward – no conversation required. When I showed the proprietor my list of movies, pointing out a few I hadn't found, he "Googled" the English title and found the Chinese translation. Apparently my browsing skills are quite good because none of the ones I couldn't find were in stock.

Things didn't get exciting until we were ready to check out. I'd forgotten about the beggars that frequent that part of the city. As DC received the change for his purchases, a very aggressive little old lady poked her head into the store and started hitting him up for money, shaking a little plastic bowl containing a few coins. The proprietor of the store yelled at her in Mandarin. This went on for a few minutes. At one point he acted like he was going to give her a 100RMB bill but he must have been saying "What? Are you crazy? You think I'm going to give you 100RMB?" He sure didn't. There was quite a bit of yelling on his part and ignoring on her part.

I'd say she won that round because when we left, she stuck to our sides like a burr. DC and I were saying "no, no, no" except it was really "no, no, no, bu xie, bu xie, bu xie". It was hard to even walk because she was crowding us, hindering our progress. Eventually I pulled DC into a restaurant along the way so we could catch our breath. As she tried to follow us in, an employee took to chastising her. While he had her engaged, we made our escape.

The rest of the walk back to the hotel was uneventful. This last image is taken from the foot bridge at the end of Huang He Bei Lu ("Huang He North Road"). My hotel is the 5-story tan building seen through the trees).

(This adventure took place Sunday, 12/6, but due to network connection challenges the posting has been delayed).

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