By Jim Benning
The Washington Post
The Best American Travel Writing 2007 - Notable Story
I’ve always considered my hotel rooms to be refuges — places where, no matter how foreign the culture around me, I could retreat and unwind, free from the challenges and confusion of the outside world. That was particularly true in China. I’d arrived with only a few words of Chinese at my disposal: “hello,” “thank you” and, as a result of an ill-fated attempt at a community college Mandarin course, “I like to eat rice.” While I had little trouble procuring a bland, starchy lunch, other tasks, such as asking for directions or buying a train ticket, often devolved into exhausting games of charades. The language barrier felt as insurmountable as the Great Wall, and at the end of each day, my well of patience having run dry, I would escape into the safe confines of my hotel room.
That’s exactly where my wife, Leslie, and I wound up after exploring the northern city of Xian late one afternoon. So when the telephone suddenly rang, intruding upon our sanctum, I was in no hurry to answer it. None of our friends knew where we were. Not a soul at the hotel’s front desk spoke English. And I had no interest in proclaiming, yet again, my great love of rice.
I considered ignoring the phone, but when the caller didn’t relent after nearly half a dozen rings, I flopped down on the bed and picked up.
“Ni hao,” I said.
A woman at the other end uttered something in Chinese, her voice rising in a way that suggested a question.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Mandarin,” I replied in English, assuming that would put a quick end to it.
As I was about to hang up, she said something else, this time exhaling between words, as though she were pedaling an exercise bike.
She offered a few more words in a warm, soft voice, and then breathed into the phone, this time in a way that evoked not a sweaty gymnasium but a romantic, candlelit bedroom. I had no idea what she was saying, but I liked the way she was saying it.
Leslie, standing across the room, shot me a quizzical look. I pulled the receiver away from my lips and whispered, “I think it’s a prostitute, but I’m not sure. She doesn’t speak any English.”
Leslie shook her head, then wished me a good time and disappeared into the shower.
I’d remembered reading something about Chinese prostitutes occasionally calling hotel rooms to seduce potential clients, but I’d never received such a call myself.
On the streets around our hotel, amid the noodle joints and mom-and-pop markets, we’d seen a number of curious shops with barber poles, hazy pink lights and young women inside. Was this woman calling from one of them? Was she hoping to lure me in?
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I just don’t understand what you’re saying.”
She said something back, her breathy voice rising and falling seductively.
I cursed the Great Wall of language barriers. What to do?
I summoned my most charming, debonair voice and said, “Wo xihuan chi fan.” I like to eat rice.
My phone friend giggled with delight and cooed, as though I’d just whispered a sweet nothing in her ear.
I felt as though I’d unlocked the door to some alternate Forbidden City where gibberish was an aphrodisiac and young women had nothing better to do than to giggle and coo and flirt on the phone with strange men. I liked it.
I picked up my Mandarin phrasebook and rifled through it, searching for another bon mot.
“Wo yao zu yiliang zixingche,” I said. I want to hire a bicycle.
My friend laughed. Then she whispered something else, her soft voice revealing, I was almost sure, a deep and heretofore unspoken yearning.
A picture was forming in my mind of a young woman who looked not unlike Lucy Liu, flaked out on a sofa in one of those pink-lit rooms, twirling a finger in her long hair, smiling coquettishly. When she replied this time, I could swear she was telling me,” I know a great place where we could share a bowl of rice.” Or maybe she was just saying, “My prices start at a very reasonable three hundred yuan.” Whatever. The important thing was that she seemed to be into me.
I scoured the transportation section of my phrase book for another enchanting line.
“Moban qiche jidian kai,” I said. When is the last bus?
My friend giggled. I laughed.
Just about then, Leslie stepped out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her, patting her damp hair. She looked puzzled.
“You’re still on the phone?” she said.
I smiled and shrugged.
Leslie furrowed her brow and then cracked a smile. She couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or amused. I wasn’t sure myself whether to feel guilty or stupid.
It was, in an odd, small way, not so different from the confusion I’ve often felt traveling in a country where the culture and language are not my own. I arrive eager to make sense of everything. But the more time passes, the more I’m reminded that this is not so easily accomplished, and that the world is an impossibly complicated place. And then, as hard as it is, I try to make peace with my confusion, and even, on rare occasions, embrace it.
I decided it was time to get off the phone. I searched my phrase book for a few parting words. Then, in my best Mandarin accent, I said, “Is there a lifeguard on duty?”
My friend giggled. We giggled together. Then I gently hung up the phone.