China Elevator Stories

Lost In Translation in Beijing

In 2005, I get lost in Beijing. This was before I had started to study Chinese.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


My first trip to China was to Beijing in September 2005. I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese at that time, but I had already made up my mind to study this beautiful language. So far, my path has led me to Beijing only twice in my life, and I remember it as a very big, gray, and smoggy city. You have to keep in mind that this was not Beijing as it is today; it was Beijing before the Olympics.

One day in September of 2005, the otherwise pitch-black sky was illuminated by the millions of light bulbs used in this city. I had been running around the city all day long, felt exhausted, and was looking for the next subway stop. I managed to find the street corner where the subway stop was supposed to be on my map, but I couldn’t find a sign or an entrance leading to the subway. This was also Beijing before the era of smartphones, not that I had a phone with me that I could use in China, to begin with.

I asked a traffic police woman for the way, using English. She wasn’t able to understand me, so she asked a young guy in Chinese to help me out. But as it turned out, this guy didn’t understand English either. He gestured to me to follow him, which I did.

We entered a big gray building that didn’t have any signs on the outside, and I assumed it was an apartment complex. We took the elevator to the 7th floor. I started becoming a bit weary as to where this guy was taking me. As we arrived on the 7th floor, it turned out that small shops were extending over the whole floor. I followed the guy to one of the shops, where he started telling his friends that I was lost. That is at least what I assume he told them. They then called a friend on the phone who could speak English. Finally, on the other side of the line, I could hear somebody speak a familiar-sounding language. I felt relieved. But as it turned out, with my hearing and the signal both being really bad, giving directions over the phone was not an option.

The only option left seemed to be to go find the next subway stop on my map. And this is what I did. Since this was Beijing, a city of more than 15 million, getting from one subway stop to the next by foot was like walking through half of Vienna. This time I was lucky though, and I could find the subway stop that would take me back to my hotel in one go.

You may wonder why I didn’t just take a cab. Running around all day, I had allowed a shop clerk to talk me into spending my cash on buying a pair of fake shoes I didn’t even really want. I wasn’t sure how much it would cost to take a cab back to the hotel, and I thought taking the subway was the safer option.

As I found out later in the evening, I didn’t even actually get lost. I was looking for the subway at the correct crossroads, only to find that the subway stop had not been built yet. My map showed the subway stop but didn’t mention it hadn’t been built yet. It would take three more years until the subway line would be finished.

Have you ever been lost in translation?

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