Shanghai Charades

“This weather matches my feelings.”

Lucas Erickson, March 7, 2012, 6:45 am


The weather here has been terrible—constant rain and gray days.  Today when I walked Henry to school it began to sleet.  It is no fun to be in a downward dip in your cultural acclimation and have the weather decide to follow your lead.  Needless to say, this is making any attempt at cheering up the kids fairly futile.  This morning when Lucas looked out at the cloudy sky and told me that this weather was a perfect match for how he was feeling inside, my heart sank.  I can remember feeling like that about 10 years ago when I had a touch of the old baby blues.  Looking out at that February sky that always seemed to get dark and dreadful so early in the afternoon, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be able to manage leaving the house.  But Spring came in spite of my dour mood, and suddenly things seemed ok again.  I am hoping that any minute now Spring will come to Shanghai.  We could use it.

There was about an hour of reasonable weather yesterday.  The sun threatened to shine and tried to peek out of the clouds.  It didn’t last long, but it was just enough time to do a little shopping with another American who arrived in Shanghai about the same time as we did.  We had plans to head over the river to explore a bit, but ended up staying close to home to run errands.  One of these stops involved the sporting goods store to buy some gear for her son.  He is in middle school, and is playing baseball here in Shanghai.  To be able to practice, he needed an athletic supporter.  Moms love to buy these kinds of things, of course.  Even in English, purchasing a jock strap for your not-quite-grown son can be a terrifying experience.  Having to explain yourself and ask around to find what you need can be brutal when it involves someone else’s genitals.  And it doesn’t matter that you might be fine with every word ever used for boy anatomy.  The salespeople rarely have this kind of poise.

The sporting goods store here is pretty big so we were sure they would have what we needed.  We started the search hoping that it wouldn’t involve the usual Chinglish pantomime that seems to occur here on a daily basis.  No such luck.  An unsuspecting salesman with limited English approached us to offer his assistance.  Did we need any help?  Of course we did!  We explained in English.  My friend offered every synonym for jock strap known to man but was met with a baffled expression.  Where do you wear this thing?  The salesman was confused.  Was it to protect your stomach?  What sport was this for anyway?  He led us to the support belts for heavy lifting.  Nope, we explained.  It is for protecting this part HERE.  We vigorously pantomimed.  My friend kept suggesting situations where a cup would be helpful all of which made the salesman grow redder and redder in the face and more confused.  He questioned us to help determine what this mystery item was.  Why would a ball hit you there?   What sport was this for again?  He enlisted the help of a fellow associate.  My friend volunteered that you might need an athletic supporter for American football or for rugby.  This did not help.  Our first helper tried explaining to our new acquaintance in Chinese what he thought we were looking for.  The second man’s face grew red as well and he expressed his astonishment and confusion through an increasingly pained series of gasps and groans.  We pantomimed again and explained that it was like underwear.  It was special protective underwear for boys.  My friend once again demonstrated an imaginary ball hitting someone in the crotch.  The new salesman winced and blurted out, “Why?!”.  Desperate, they called in the big guns.

They hunted down the manager and once again tried to explain what they thought we might want.  He blushed as well and consulted with a female associate.  We did our wild demonstration again only to have the woman use a word in Chinese that I actually understood.  Don’t have.  She didn’t even come close to blushing.  After all this they didn’t have it.  Wait, the manager insisted, we should wait while he checked online.  Maybe they did have something like this.  We waited.  He returned holding two jock straps—one a junior size and one an adult.  We loudly expressed our thanks and gratitude only to then further scandalize him by involving him in the discussion of which size would fit best.  He shifted from one foot to the other as we examined the packaging and inspected the product.  Once my friend had made her selection, I asked him what it was called in Chinese.  He told me in a low voice and I repeated the word several times, each time making him more and more uncomfortable.  “The first part means ‘protection’”, he explained, “and the second part means… this area.”  He made a sweeping gesture to indicate what he meant, making it clear that he would rather die than discuss it any further.  But who can resist repeating a word like that?  Not me.  I am sure that never before had the manager been so relieved to have satisfied customers leave with their purchase.

3 thoughts on “Shanghai Charades

  1. I feel like this should be in an episode of Arrested Development. I nearly lost it at the line “My friend once again demonstrated an imaginary ball hitting someone in the crotch. The new salesman winced and blurted out, “Why?!”. “

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