*Hello. Do you have... er... sponge?*
*Ni hao. Nin you... er... sponge ma?*
When I was inspecting my apartment on the night of my arrival, I noticed that the toilet and the fridge were in dire need of some cleaning. This was just fine with me, really; gave me a reason to go out and about my first morning in China.
My apartment building is in an apartment block, which is pretty much how the entire city is set up. Apartments aren't right on the street; they're in vaguely gated communities, where all the buildings are apartments. Don't let the "gated" part trick you, as the gates only stop vehicles. This place isn't exclusive by any means. People can come and go as they like. Back to the point, that block is surrounded by shops and restaurants. It's quite nice, actually. There's a, well, I suppose it's really a stall that happens to have walls, where you can buy the best bread for about 2 RMB (6.4-ish RMB = $1), and a few blocks away there's an amazing stall with dumplings... I digress.
My first morning in China, I woke up around 7, puttered about the apartment until 8:30, and then headed down to the streets. I found cleaning powder (去污粉, literally "Go dirt powder") in my apartment, so I only needed sponges and gloves. Simple enough. I went left out of my apartment block and rather quickly came across a shop selling cleaning supplies. I say "shop"; it looked a bit like I was walking into a professional cleaning company's storage room, which I may very well have been. I went in, asked, "您有。。。" (Do you have...), and fumbled with my dictionary until I found "gloves." I pointed. The woman nodded briskly, ran over to a shelf, and came back with some rubber cleaning gloves. Score. Next, then. "你有。。。" "sponge"? They didn't, oddly enough, but that was alright. I had gotten gloves. I felt invincible.
There was a book store next to that, selling exercise books for children. As I want to learn characters, it seemed like a good place to pick up a first-year's My First Characters book. I looked around the shop a bit, and couldn't find what I wanted, so I pulled out my dictionary and my journal and sat in the corner, scribbling what roughly translated to "I want to learn Chinese characters. I don't know much. Do you have a good book?" After a few minutes of the store keeper shuffling around with a Chinese dictionary (If you haven't ever glanced at one, by the way, I think trying to navigate a Chinese dictionary is one of the key arguments against a logographic language), it became apparent that my message was failing. At least she was nice about it. I retreated back to my corner and had a think. I grabbed a My First Maths book, and wrote (again, roughly) "This book teaches me math. Do you have one that teaches me characters?" I showed her, she nodded, and came back with that which I sought. She spoke to me for a bit in Chinese, from which I picked out almost nothing. I know I told her I was English, which was not actually on purpose, and that I was a teacher (I had to write that down, as my pronunciation is still dismal). She gave me a thumbs up as I was leaving, which I took to be general, across-the-board encouragement. "You got your book," that thumbs up said. "You're gonna do great."
I ran my hard-won wares back to my apartment, as I didn't know how far I would have to travel for a sponge. I came back down and took the right out of my block, eventually coming to a CVS-style market. As close as one can get to that in China, anyway. I found an employee, and repeated the motions; "您有。。。" *fumble* "sponge?". Her reaction led me to believe that I may have been pointing to the word for Sea Sponge, or that perhaps it was a regional thing. She didn't know either. After some quick communication with her and a coworker, miming "for your face?" "No, to wash counters", they took me to the sponges. Having accomplished my goals for the morning, I decided to walk around the store for a bit (It's not a very big store, really, but baby steps).
What happened next felt like being carried away in a stream, so out of my control was everything that occurred. The woman who had helped me decided I still needed help, and that she was going to give it to me. I flipped through the pages of my dictionary to look for the word "nothing," pointed, and it did not have the desired effect. Two more employees came seemingly out of nowhere, and they all talked. The more I insisted I didn't need anything (all in English with big, emotive gestures), the less they seemed to believe me. I was surrounded by five Chinese women, all in their fifties or sixties, determined to help me, whether I liked it or not. One of them led me to the underwear; they had decided as a group that I was embarrassed to ask for what I needed. When that didn't prove to be what I was after (as, clearly, I was after something), the council continued. More employees gathered. Some decided they needed time to rest on the bench, and were substituted for fresh players. I flipped desperately through my dictionary, trying to find some way to get across that I needed nothing. Oddly, my dictionary didn't have "I'm really sorry, I've been trying to tell you I don't need anything, but all of you are so keen on being helpful, and my faculty with the language is so low, that I've not managed to get that across, despite my myriad attempts" in the phrases section. And I thought I'd bought a nice one.
I tried "Nothing." Didn't work. I tried "No" "Need" "Help". Didn't work. I don't think the Chinese retain words well in these types of circumstances. If you pointed to "No," "Need," and "Help" in an English dictionary in America, I like to think the individual attempting to help you would get it. I even found "Can I just look around?" and pointed to that. Nothing. At this point, the store had called in employees from their other stores to try and help, so I was surrounded by roughly 237 Chinese corner-market employees, all certain I needed help with something. "But what is it?," they asked one another. They'd turned me into a Zen koan, as though the first to figure out what I needed would attain enlightenment.
Finally, they found someone who spoke English. A fellow customer, he came up and asked, "What. Do you. Need?" I said, "I don't need anything, actually. These women have been incredibly friendly and helpful, but I've been trying to tell them for the last five or ten minutes that I don't need help with an... you don't understand what I'm saying, do you."
"You. Need. Nothing?"
He translated the message. They all smiled and returned to their stations. I paid for my sponges and left, looking forward to spending an hour or so listening to some Carol King and cleaning the bathroom. "Big day," I thought to myself. "Big day."