In the first month since I landed nervously on a one-way ticket and single-entry visa from Mumbai to Beijing, I still haven’t got lost on the way to my new home-cum-China office of the Hindustan Times.
While tourists visit the world’s largest square, Tiananmen, on day one, I bizarrely went house-hunting only hours after I landed. Every apartment had a standard view — a hole in the ground, the foundation of another high-rise that had dustily marked its territory to rise with China. Soon, I stopped peeking from the windows.
Behind my new address lurches the upcoming headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV), with two L-shaped towers that ‘shook hands’ sky-high in December, joining at 90 degree angles. Ten thousand people will work inside the CCTV towers when they are ready — in time to broadcast the Olympic games. As long as I see the cranes in the skyline, I don’t have to say wo milu le — I’m lost.
I only feel lost when they ask me, “What’s the Chinese name of your company?” in banks and government offices. When I applied for a press card at the International Press Centre, a staffer translated the company name and mine to Chinese. After that, I turned to Chinese friends to reproduce the strokes in other applications.
That’s how the Hindustan Times official seal was made one cold and windswept spring morning at the entry-exit division of the Beijing municipal public security bureau. A policeman upstairs filled my Chinese application. On the ground floor, two women behind a counter filled more papers in Chinese. When one of them had to write HT’s English name, I said it one letter at a time as she copied it. They flipped through official designs and chose a red one. I was too dazed to decide red or blue.
I have lost count of the dozens of forms I have blindly signed, not knowing what the Chinese script said. The adventure began at the Bank of China. My real estate agent pressed a button for a token. We got a slip printed in Chinese that said 52 people would be served before us. It’s normal to take half-a-day off to go to the bank.
At the second branch we tried, we were number 17 and one hour away from our turn. The agent did a torrent of talking with the Chinese-speaking staff as she filled my forms. I asked for an English form for my foreigner’s account but there were only Chinese ones available.
The day I picked up HT’s Beijing bureau license, I accepted it with glee. Then I asked, “Uh, what does it say?” and the helpful staff translated it for me.
I live in a ‘modern’ apartment with appliances and remote controls bearing Chinese instructions. I waited to receive my fax machine and printer because the way to reach anywhere is to print the address in Chinese. Every place has an English and Chinese name. And taxi drivers know only the Chinese names. Only say qing fapiao, receipt please, and xiexie for thank you.
The HP machine, ordered online, arrived sprinkled with Chinese writing. My attempts at ordering office equipment in major electronics stores had failed since my Mandarin training didn’t cover technical terms. Brochures, warranties are all in Chinese. “How do I use this?” I asked the delivery boy. “This and this switch is important. The others are useless!” he said, rendering a dozen buttons redundant. While the foreign ministry press briefings are held in a room with headphones for instant English translation, ordinary life is not so international. I’ve walked hopefully into outlets of Ikea, Walmart, Carrefour, Starbucks and Subway and ended up merely pointing. But every day, the city and I grow more familiar.
On day 14, I got my first invitation to a bhangra night for Baisakhi. I didn’t dance, I just devoured the kadhi pakora.