Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Guest Blog by Oli Benet: Little Trouble in Big China

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I arrived at my hotel room in Xiamen, China, in the dead of night, tired and thirsty after a long day, to find a room full of tea, but no water. I took the lift down to the hotel entrance and went to the counter to ask the receptionist for a bottle. 

The meek yet pretty receptionist answered me in softly spoken Chinese. 

We stared at each other for a moment like two lost souls, and I repeated, 


She looked around nervously, as I imagine a bank clerk might if he had just been faced by a masked lunatic with a shotgun. 

I decided to break into a full charades demonstration, using my years of family Christmas experience. I even cheated a little as I held an imaginary bottle to my open mouth, gurgling: 

‘Gagagarr, water!’

Then I screwed the imaginary lid back on my imaginary bottle.

‘No smoking inlis!’ she answered, her panic driving her to combine every word of English she knew in one momentous sentence.

I repeated the charade with renewed enthusiasm.

‘Graagragraa, yummm water water drinky drinky water,’ rubbing my stomach, and pouring my imaginary water all over my face and hair, feeling like an actor from a low budget shampoo commercial. 

She wrote down a number on a piece of paper and pointed at the phone. 

I returned to my room and dialled the number she had given me. Another softly spoken male voice answered in Chinese.

'Water? Can I have some Water? There is no water in my room,' I said, knowing that I was at a clear disadvantage, unable to perform my Oscar winning charade performance over the phone. 

Eventually after a long ‘aaaahh’ he answered ‘no’ and we both hung up the phone, none the wiser. 

By now I really wanted some water, so I called a friend living in Spain who speaks Chinese from my mobile phone and asked them to call the hotel to ask them to bring water to my room.

A few minutes later there was a knock at the door and I was presented with 2 bottles of water. Feeling confident now, I showed the man a photo of a can of beer in a magazine. He nodded his head and disappeared down the corridor, only to return later with a can of beer.

‘Yuan?’ he said
‘You what?’ 
‘ I did, but you didn't understand me...’
‘Oh! Can you charge the room? I have no cash...’

I may as well have read him an extract from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. An uncomfortable silence ensued. 

‘Here, you can have the beer back!’ I said, not knowing what else to do.  

He refused, clearly thinking I was inviting him to share the beer with me. Instead he walked into my room, dialled for reception and passed me the phone.

‘She doesn't understand me!’ I said, trying to pass the phone back.
He wouldn't take it, so I went through the motions.

‘Hello, can you charge a beer to my room,’ I said to the nervous receptionist. 

There was a long pause. 

‘........water?’ she said.

I tried to pass the phone and the beer back to the man, but he wouldn't take them. He pushed the phone into my hand while we stood together wedged between 2 beds trying not to make eye contact.

I could feel the receptionists' alarm through the handset.

I really didn't want this beer any more...

It was a moment of pure gridlock. There was growing panic on both our faces as we spluttered broken words that neither of us understood. I couldn't see how it would end.

Finally the man took the phone, mumbled into it for a while, then walked out of the room.

Yuan, you ask? 

No, I'm pretty sure I lost.

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