It’s not often that I wish I had a travel companion but this thought frequently crossed my mind when I was in Shenzhen. There were days when all I ever said was “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Check please,” “Cold,” and (very badly but with great feeling), “Where is the toilet?”
After I had met Mr. Lee, the manager of Granville Whale’s Cafe, things perked up, conversationally speaking, but he was a busy man. Once a week or so, I met my friend Albert across the border for a few hours and tried not to allow my words to become a tsunami as we chatted.
Aside from normal human discourse, there was the sheer surprise of Shenzhen, constantly knocking me on the chin. I took snapshots constantly and posted them online when I could, but out of context, they looked flat and ordinary. Even the skyscraper whose facade was peeled away mid-tower to resemble an appendectomy at one angle, a hernia at the other, was only an amusement without seeing the other equally imposing but less eccentric buildings that surrounded it. The half of a motorcycle that burst through a restaurant wall just beneath its roof meant little unless it was viewed from the perspective of a chic shopping center across the street. And the amazement caused by a sign for a new apartment complex that said “Dolores Park: Life is routine punctuated by orgies” was nonexistent unless the reader had walked for hours in a place where written English is an anomaly.
Ordering a soft-serve ice cream cone at a streetside McDonald's that looked from a photograph as if it might be related to strawberry and finding it was made from hawthorn berries, asking a clerk in an Apple store where to find an ATM with an English menu and being directed to the nearest Starbucks, emerging from the metro into what was expected to be still more city and finding it was a gigantic construction zone where Shenzhen is still being built--all of this would have been more credible somehow if there was someone to turn to and ask “Can you dig it?”
And yet without that comradeship and without the immediate gratification of a status update, I wrote this all down every day. And when I go back to Shenzhen, I will go by myself, with a goal. Yes, I need language there. No, that language is not my own, and the conversation I want will be hard to come by. But there really is nothing fun about “easy.” It’s about as dull as being wordless for sixty days in another galaxy.