One of the things I learned this Summer is that, while I may leave on holidays to Europe, China doesn’t really leave me anymore. More than just a country, it is a force of nature, the other face of mankind that is now part of my life. China is always there, and she is everywhere, showing up in unexpected circumstances.
Take Spain, for example. The Chinese community there is largely new, not fluent in languages, and originated from one single point in China: the tiny county of Qingtian, upriver from Wenzhou. When it comes to languages, the Spanish are not much better than them, and the whole situation is full of opportunities for the literate laowai. While a simple “nihao” is usually enough to be the hero of the day, some preparation yields better results. Just wander into a Chinese shop casually dropping a Qingtianese greeting, and comment on the remarkable history of the old stone-carving county, home of the Chinese-Spanish. This makes you popular. And you can drink tea and practice your Chinese conversation for hours on end.
What follows is a true story that happened in my last day of holidays. It includes a Chinese family with extraordinary sleeping abilities, and a team of adventurous Spanish ducks. I hope you enjoy it:
It was the first morning flight from Bilbao to Paris, where I was scheduled to connect with the Air France to Shanghai. As I entered the cabin of the A319, I marked immediately a Chinese family sitting in one of the front rows: a middle-aged mother with her son.
She was wearing a shapeless purple jacket in the style of the hundred names, and her teenage son covered his head in a Korean hip-hop hoody. They stood out in the business atmosphere of the early flight. But what made me notice them—and I couldn’t help a smile—is that they were already fast asleep before I even got to my seat. As far as I could see, they didn’t switch their positions for the duration of a rather eventful flight.
From the start, the journey proved trying for my nerves. As we were taking off, there was a loud bang coming from the back of the plane, followed by a vibration that grew stronger as we flew. For a while nothing else happened, but then, as we were approaching France, the plane suddenly leant to one side, and the Pyrenees mountains turned 180 degrees around us, until we were headed back West from where we came.
The noise grew worse, and the passengers with notions of geography were increasingly anxious. The town of San Sebastian appeared below us for the second time, only this time the ground seemed much closer. All the service call beeps went off one after the other. I looked around to the other passengers and they were all looking around. Nobody spoke.
Finally, the cabin crew appeared on the aisle, delivering row by row the official version of the facts: during take off a flying object had collided with the blades of engine 2, producing the bang and subsequent vibrations that we were experiencing. It was a common occurrence, and there was no danger. As part of the normal safety procedure, the captain had decided to return to the home airport for maintenance.
“It was probably a bird,” said the stewardess when she got to our row.
“A bird?” laughed the steward, “that was a team of big fat ducks!”
I figured he must have been instructed to keep a light mood. I tried hard to laugh, picturing circles of ducklings turning in the turbofan as we struggled to get past the sharp Basque valleys.
After an endless flight we were safety landed back onto Bilbao airport. As we were waiting to disembark, the pilot confirmed that the airplane was done for the day. We had to pick up our luggage first and then go to the Air France office on the second floor to request a new ticket. As usual, my suitcase was one of the last to appear on the rolling band, and by the time I got to the office there was already a long queue, about the length of a duck-stricken A319, and every bit as noisy.
The crowd was growing unruly. Some French passengers harangued the masses with true revolutionary spirit, launching slogans against all winged creatures, including ducks, airbuses, and Air France pilots. Since I was last, there was not much point in queuing, so I just stood on one side in a way to signify my disapproval. Then I noticed the focus was gradually shifting, as the keen Robespierres directed their anger to some unidentified target at the front of the queue. I walked over to have a closer look.
It was the Chinese family.
Clearly, they hadn’t understood the instructions to pick up the luggage, and they had come straight to the airline office before anyone else. They were first, and they showed no intention of giving up their position. On the contrary, they were holding it admirably. The mother covered the rearguard with her fierce eye, while the son held fast to the desk. They were obviously well trained in conflictive queues, and they seemed unimpressed by the mob.
Linguistically, the situation was not ideal. The mother was screaming in Qingtianese, the son translated into Chinglese and an Air France employee replied in elaborate Spanglish, while the French head of office stared in disbelief. I was alone, and my faithful friend the Electronic Dictionary & Thesaurus was out of reach in the bottom of my bag. But the time was to act, and I did not falter in the hour of peril.
I cut right to the front and put in a “Qué pasa? 什么事?”. All four faces turned to me at once. The queue became suddenly quiet.
“They want to go to China!” cried the employee in Spanish.
“We want to go to China!” cried the son in Chinese.
The positions of the parties seemed to me very much unanimous, and ripe for an easy consensus. But further enquiry proved that it was not exactly so. I managed to reconstruct the following facts:
The family had slept through the flight, right until we landed back in Bilbao. Then they had not understood the strongly accented message of the pilot and they had dashed out of the plane straight to the connections desk, where they had been redirected to the airline office. And they acted so urgently because they only had one hour to catch the connecting flight. All they asked is to board their plane immediately, and they were pretty suspicious of this whole attitude of the staff in Paris.
Because they actually thought they were in Paris.
The problem was not an easy one to explain. Not only the mother’s mandarin was as bad as mine, but also she was determined, and she had a deep rooted common sense. They had just flown into Paris and therefore this was Paris, she would take no nonsense from a laowai. I used all my persuasion. I noted how the souvenir shops were selling bullfighters, and not tour eiffels. Finally the young son understood, and he helped me convince her. The fact was settled: We were in Spain, and there were no direct flights to Shanghai from this airport.
The rest was fairly easy to manage, and after a few minutes the three of us left the office with a new ticket. Once their infinite gratitude had been sufficiently expressed, I couldn’t help asking the son:
“But, how could you not realize that this is the same airport as before?”
“Well,” he smiled shyly, “Mum was just telling me that she finds all airports in Europe look strikingly similar!”
And his mother, who was tough but good-humoured, found it rather funny, and we all joined in a face-saving laughter. Then I knew I was engaged as official interpreter of the sleeping family.
In the end, my work as a translator served my interests well. We got our new tickets before anyone else, the last three places left to connect with the evening Paris-Shanghai. The revolutionaries were so stunned by the performance that they forgot to guillotine us, and the Air France employee gave us some free lunch vouchers for the VIP lounge. To make our wait more pleasant, she said, the company was offering one of their specialty dishes in the “Restaurant des Mondes”.
It was still far from the Spanish lunch time, so we had to wait while they opened the kitchen for us. The prospect of a free lunch worked well to improve the mood of my Chinese friends, and we had a lively chat in the VIP sofas. I took the chance to impress them with my baidupedic knowledge of their hometown. After that they opened up to me, and the last lines of suspicion finally vanished from the woman’s brow.
I listened distractedly as the son informed me of the state of the rap scene in Zhejiang. A terrible state that was, apparently, and I waited for a chance to switch topics. It was his mother that I found most intriguing. All the while she was sitting very still, as if lost in her own thoughts. She had an outside appearance that in China would be classified as “peasant”, but her proud, resolute eyes didn’t quite fit in the picture. What was she doing flying around with her single son? I finally asked him.
As it turned out, she was a renowned chef back home. Qingtian is the origin of thousands of Chinese restaurants across Europe, and their extended family had made a fortune with a popular chain of Chinese food. She had come as an expert to establish new recipes in the family restaurants in Spain, all the while teaching her son the secrets of the Chinese cuisine. They had toured the country for three months, making the company’s food “more delicious, more authentically Chinese”.
“Her most famous recipe is Beijing Duck,” said the kid, licking his lips, “You have never tried anything like that!”
“I would love to have a chance to try it,” I answered, suddenly hungry for duck.
Then the mother, who hadn’t said a word all this time, looked at me with a strange smile. I felt there was an invitation coming. Instead, she opened her eyes wide and nervously shook her son’s shoulder.
“Heavens!” she cried, “we still haven’t picked up our luggage!”
When I took them down to luggage collection, their belongings were still lonely turning around on the band, a number of shapeless pieces covered in woven tarpaulin. As we loaded them one by one onto a trolley, the son suddenly found something was wrong. It was the last packet, a cardboard box with some strange little holes pierced on the top. He held the box on his knees and showed me one of the corners where it had been torn open. The box was empty.
The woman was very upset. She started moving her arms up and down and speaking in her sing-song dialect at an alarming speed. I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, but the replies of her son were more composed, and I could more or less make out the gist of it:
“I told you we couldn’t take them on a plane, mum!”, he was saying.
“But how can we pass the long winter without them?”, she replied.
Suddenly I had a very dark premonition. While they were busy arguing, I walked over to the broken box and examined it carefully. As I held it up in front of me, a small, delicate object floated down from the broken corner. It was a feather.
I dropped the box as if it burned my hands, and I kicked it behind the rolling band were it wouldn’t be seen. I was in panic now, and I joined the arguing party with my own version of alarmed mandarin:
“We have to het out of here, NOW!”, I said.
“What? But the box?,” said the mother.
“Forget it!” I pushed the trolley towards the door, “we will see to that later!”
“What? But we have to file a complaint. They might have found …”
I tried to control my nerves, as I envisioned charges for terrorism, and the dire diplomatic consequences of China’s national dish being presented as evidence of the crime. I tried to relax telling myself that at least there hadn’t been any human casualties.
“Please help us,” she said.
“We can’t do this now! Spain is a bureaucratic country, these things take a long time…” I muttered. “And anyway I’m sure your little friends are going to be fine!”
She gave me another inquisitive glance, like the first time I suggested she was not in Paris. She was clearly reconsidering about my sanity.
“Well, excuse me,” she said, “but they are important to me, and if you don’t want to help me I will have to file the complaint myself”
Just at that moment the airport PA system cracked with a life-saving announcement. All the passengers of the cancelled flight were asked to go back immediately to the second floor, were new information was awaiting us from the captain.
“Quick, this must be our lunch, let’s go before we miss it!” I translated, and this argument finally seemed convincing enough for the stubborn lady.
On the second floor, the slick French captain was putting in practice the company’s open information policy. The maintenance staff had just confirmed—he said—that it was indeed the impact of external objects on the engine that had caused the vibration. The strange bodies had been already extracted and brought in from the hangar for analysis. The decision to return to the airport had proven a good choice, as it was the chief engineer’s opinion that we would have never made it to Paris.
A drop of cold sweat fell down my right temple as I considered the chances of those little animals finding their way into the turbine. Even if they managed to tear open the box and then break free from under the piles of luggage, even if they could unlatch the hold door with their little beaks, still, how could they fly over to the engine? It seemed impossible. I remembered the laws of fluid dynamics, and how turbulent airflows exhibit nonlinear, chaotic behaviours. For the first time in my life I felt I understood the real meaning of the Chaos Theory.
In the meantime, the mother had sent her boy to inquire about lost objects, and he was explaining their problem to the captain in such a perfectly unintelligible English that the brave man could only smile politely. They looked around at a loss, only to see that their laowai friend was nowhere to be found. I had just in time slipped into the gentlemen’s restroom.
At this point, the airport loudspeakers buzzed again:
Passengers of the AF2435 to Paris, please proceed into our VIP lounge. As a special attention, we are offering you the chef’s specialty in our exclusive “Restaurant des Mondes”
I joined the family again as they walked down the corridor to the VIP Lounge. It seemed that the luxury meal kindly offered by Air France had conquered the heart of the frightful woman. Her expression showed no more pain for the loss of her beasts, and I hoped she had decided to give up the search. Presently, she was impressed by the quality of the service, and her mood was chatty.
“They know how to treat a client, in France,” she said conversationally, “back in China it’s not even comparable.”
“Oh, sure, great service here,”
“Even if they don’t have any proper backup plans,” she noted, “they are just great at doing nice surprises.”
“Oh, yeah, you can count on the French for surprises”
“It is all in the attitude, isn’t it?”, she said, and her only child nodded in agreement.
As we approached the “Restaurant des Mondes”, the atmosphere was so relaxed that I thought we had passed the worst. I just had to get them on our plane right after lunch, and there would be no more nonsense of lost object complaints. Then I saw the stewardess at the restaurant door, smiling. She held a large sign written in all the major languages of the World, including mandarin. It read:
TODAYS SPECIAL DISH:
“Thin-sliced duck Beijing style”
In case there were any doubts, underneath the text there was a colourful picture of a team of ducks thinly sliced as if by fast rotating blades, swimming in the dark sauce of the traditional Beijing recipe.
I tried with my body to hide the sign from their view, but I was too late. There was not much point anyway, the pictures were all over the place, and the food was coming out any minute. As we sat down, I peeped at her out of the corner of my eye. Her expression was enigmatic, the initial apprehension had turned into something more lofty. Was it triumph? I trembled.
The dishes were served and, unexpectedly, nothing happened. I glanced at my two friends. The were obviously enjoying their meal, emitting now and then favorable grunts and other judgements with the assurance of the true connoisseur. Then, halfway through their ducks, they looked at each other with an understanding smile and, following some mysterious signal, the lady suddenly stood up, knocking her chair behind her, and crying out loudly:
“I want to speak to the person who cooked this!”
There was a spark in her eye as she glared at the kitchen door on the other side of the dining room. I could not think of anything to say this time, so I just sat still, helpless as the slings and arrows flew swiftly towards their target.
Seeing that no help was forthcoming from my side, the mother ignored me and took direct action. She strode across the room and, without further preambles, she thrust open the kitchen door, roaring in Qingtianese. In a minute, the cook came out sporting a high chef hat and howling even louder than her. To my surprise, he was also employing some variety of Zhejiang dialect.
Then something strange happened. The moment he saw the chef, the son stood up and ran across the dining room charging like a fighting bull, and when the three of them were at a close distance, they came together in a long, warm hug.
I stood rather awkwardly next to them, wondering what was next. The chatter of the adults had risen to undecipherable speeds under the flow of emotions. I looked at the teenager for an explanation, but he was too absorbed speaking to the cook. Finally, I managed to catch some fraction of the conversation:
“Uncle Li, we knew it had to be you, nobody else in the World can cook Beijing Duck like mother! What are you doing here?”
“You know, I got a catering contract with Air France, didn’t I tell you?”
“Uncle, you really need to help us, mother is really worried! This laowai is with us, but his Chinese is so-so, and he just doesn’t get it!”
“Say, my boy, what is the problem?”
“It is the new down-filled coats that mum bought to take home for the winter. She was so upset when we found out that they’ve been stolen from our luggage…”