Literally lost in Translation


I’m in line waiting to pay for my “baozi”, local delicacies that are similar to a bun of light dough filled with various meats and seasoning. The person right before me gets to the counter and pulls out her phone. Two seconds after, she walks out of the store, without having taken out her wallet. Meanwhile, I get to the cash register and struggle to count my Renminbi, before handing a chaotic pile of ¥1. I would pay with my credit card but most places don’t accept it. Instead, all restaurants have a QR scan code system that allows anyone with a Chinese bank account to use his or her phone to pay any bill. Very convenient isn’t it? No need to carry wallets around, you can just leave the house with your phone, hoping it’s sufficiently charged to get you through the day. I cannot help but wonder, what would happen if you suddenly lost your phone. Ironically, it happened to me, the first day of class at Beijing University.

Living a phone free life in the crazy wilderness of Beijing has certainly been an interesting experience. My phone is usually the answer to many of my questions. Without it, there is no longer an easy access to a Translator in the case where I forget a word. As a result, talking to locals is often followed by a sequence of mimics and gestures to try to be understood. I have to admit, it has helped develop my imagination and it has allowed me to think harder about words I had learnt but forgotten. There have also been many lonelier moments when I wanted to talk with people from home but couldn’t because I didn’t have my phone to communicate with them.

Birds nest, Olympic Center

Finding myself phone free in the capital has also proved to be interesting. Last Monday, I had to go check out a fencing club in the Olympic Village (I am on the fencing team at Notre Dame). The trip was a 15-minute cab ride but an hour-long metro ride where I had to change lines 3 times. Before leaving for my adventure, I printed a map of the city, using Baidu, the local Google, to show the cabdriver where I wanted to go. After getting in a heated argument with the cab driver who wanted to charge me ¥20 more than he was supposed to, I finally got to the Olympic village. I did not think it through enough and didn’t expect it to be this big. Since Maps couldn’t help me I wondered around for a while. I asked two people walking down the street where the “击剑场“, fencing gym, was, insisting on the tones to make myself understood.

One of the gyms at the Vango fencing gym

To my surprise they understood immediately and indicated a building a couple meters away. When I finally arrived, I was told today was their rest day, quite unfortunate. I managed however to communicate with a few people who were there. On the subway coming back, I couldn’t help but notice everyone riding the subway was on his or her phone and did not stop looking at his screen for the length of the trip.

Overall, getting lost in a part of Beijing I had never been to, with any way to communicate turned out to be an interesting adventure. I understood that I didn’t need a translator for every word I forgot. It proved more fun and rewarding to communicate with the few words I know. I also had to interact more with people, asking for directions, and help along the way. And even though at times I felt lonely without a phone to keep me company in the huge streets of Beijing, I was able to take a break from the smartphone life and go back to simpler ways.