death by paper cut

{February 8, 2007}   found in translation

terminal 2

departure hall

gate number

now boarding

seat number

please bucket up

taking off


thanks for flying with us.

about 7 hours later, i arrived at another continent, in another time zone. it was as if i travelled so fast that i saved 3 hours; the cabin crew wears time-space fabric? there was no turbulence and the flight went smoothly. in fact, it was more than smooth, it was interesting.

for the first time, i had to put my rudimentary command of mandarin to good use.

*pause to allow for friends to get up after laughing off their chair*

yes, i stuttered, struggled, pondered and improvised but still manage to successfully help an elderly singaporean couple to alight the plane. not understanding a word of english, they approached me to fill up their disembarkation forms for them. filling up the names, passport number, etc was the easy part. next comes the long list of yes and no. i tried my best to ask them in mandarin what the form enquired, mostly with very crude and basic mandarin. some questions i skipped and answered no on their behalf like, “have you been to africa in the past 6 days?” or “do you have soil on your shoes?” because i forgot that africa and soil is called in mandarin.

i got by very crudely with other questions. “do you have with you more than $10,000 in australian dollars?” i asked instead, “how much money do you have?” “four thousand,” they answered.

“do you have more than (a certain amount of cigarettes)?” i asked instead, “do you smoke?” “no,” they answered (fortunately).

“have you been convicted of any crime?” i asked instead, “have you been imprisoned /ni you may you chuo guo lao?” “no,” they answered as i expected.

the next question caused me to spend more time with them while going through customs, “have you brought any food products cooked or uncooked?” “yes,” they said (of course). i told them that the authorities might want to have a look at their food products.

the elderly couple requested that i accompany them through the customs so that i could be their translator. oh boy, here we go again. naturally, since they’ve declared that they’ve brought in food, it has to be inspected in australia.

they brought in nian gao, i told the customs officer that they were moon cakes. well, its not exactly moon cakes, but i think its close enough. what’s nian gao in english anyway? the officers were more concerned if they contained eggs. fortunately they didn’t. translating eggs into “dan” was managable. even so, the “moon cakes” had to be x-rayed, after which they were returned to the elderly couple. the rice four was allowed to be brought through and the last items were the old woman’s medication. the authorities wanted to know it they were traditional chinese medicine, not knowing how to say that, i told the couple that they wanted to take a look at the medication, they were prescribed pills.

finally, we were allowed to leave. i’ve never spoken that much mandarin outside school. even after this episode, i’m not motivated to brush up my command of mandarin, i got by didn’t i?

another linguistic encounter was with a german girl seated next to me on the plane. being german, she felt compelled to describe the dessert that came with the meal on the austrian airline flight. “its apple…some kind of apple,” she hesitated. “apple strudel?” i suggested. she stared at me in wide-eyed wonder, “you know apple strudel? your german is good!” the poor girl was flabbergasted when i told her about ritz apple strudel and that we “celebrate” oktoberfest.

with that, i arrived in melbourne on a lovely 20 degree day.


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