ATM, Wontons, Lizard


I am an illiterate deaf-mute.

After the jet lag passes (it takes a week) I’m getting up again at 5:00 a.m. every morning. No, I want to get up that early. Everyone has their quiet time. This is mine.

One morning I shuffle in bare feet into the kitchen to make coffee. There are two small children in the apartment. For the love of God, let them sleep a few more hours. Every sound is deafening: the tick of a spoon on the kitchen counter, the spray and percussion of water in the sink, the sticky refrigerator door that goes thonk when I pull it open.  Back in the living room, I foolishly decide to put my pants on while standing up, in the dark. What could be a perfunctory operation goes badly. With both legs pushing into the same pant leg, I lose my balance and tip over sideways, flopping with a silent splash onto the couch. Unhurt.

This instance of clutzery is a metaphor for my life in Shanghai up to this point.

Later this morning I leave the apartment in search of a China Construction Bank ATM.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get any cash. In five days of very inconvenient calls to Bank of America (go ahead, just try to use one of those toll free international numbers on the back of your card), I’ve been assured no problem, my account is now unlocked. No, it’s not. Most recently Mark in Albuquerque, the supervisor I ask for, insists with profuse apologies that he sees my account is definitely unlocked now, and please be sure to use China Construction Bank to avoid fees.  I find the location of a number of branch offices on my phone, map three of them within a mile of the apartment. I’m pretty sure I know where I’m going.

On the corner where there’s supposed to be a China Construction Bank I find Zhong Hua Beef Noodles. I walk a little further, to a wide driveway guarded by four cops. It’s a school entrance. I nod hello, I’m looking for a bank, trying not to look like a child molester.


At a coffee bar nearby I get back online, find another branch, snap a picture of the map on my phone. I walk off in this new direction.  Passing Shanghai Culture Square, it occurs to me that I can’t ask anyone for directions.  You can’t, under almost any circumstances, say, “Do you know there ——- is?” when you can’t even say “——-”.

I took a crappy picture of the map, but somehow I find my way to the bank. It’s a big branch that, judging from the leaves and grime, has been dead for quite a while. The letters spelling the bank’s name have been stripped off the building, leaving sooty silhouettes of both the Chinese and English characters. The ATM cabin is locked. Above the cabin is a sign, China Construction Bank, 建设银行.  In a moment of inspiration, I take a picture of the sign above the ATM so I can show someone.


Ten minutes later, at the crosswalk on another street corner, I show this photo to a man holding a briefcase. He looks at me, mildly irritated, then glances at my phone. In a blink he points south. I smile and say xiexie, one of my two words in Chinese, thinking as I do: I’ve already been to the branch in that direction, and was declined five times. I do not want to revisit failure.  I also think: How in the world did he read that sign so fast? When I look at traditional Chinese characters, I see chopsticks and noodles. But then of course, the man can read Chinese.

Chopsticks and noodles: A quick study (which is no study at all) tells me Chinese characters consist of pictographs and glyphs, ideograms and compound ideographs. There are 30,000 characters. A functionally literate person would require 3000 or so to read a newspaper.

The character for bank is 銀行.

I heard it said that once you can read a word, you can’t not read it when you see it. Perception and [re]cognition are instantaneous. It’s a reminder of how tremendously enabling and empowering literacy is. When you can read, you live in the midst of things, people, and processes, signs and symbol. You are embedded in signification and meaning. The inability to decode even the most ordinary language renders much of the world unintelligible.  You are surrounded people and things and processes, and a lot of silent gibberish.

Here, for all intents and purposes, I am an illiterate deaf-mute. Photographs are my lifeline.

Early one afternoon my daughter and I have wonton soup in a diner a few blocks from the apartment. This outing is one part austerity program–I’m still under the Bank of America curse–one part gluttony agenda.  We get two large bowls of soup and beer for 30 RMB, about four bucks. The soup is delicious, huge wontons with a meaty, greeny filling. In the five booths on one side of the restaurant and the one long table down the middle of the narrow room, with stools on either side, the place can seat forty people. We take a couple stools.

At one point she looks up from her bowl and says, “I want that next time.”

Next to her, his face lowered to his food, a guy is lifting noodles and a large cutlet from a bowl of dark broth. Of course she can’t say, What’s that?  She pulls out her phone, raises it, and offers the universal gesture: Can I take a picture of what you’re eating?

noodles and cutlet

He sets down his chopsticks, a blank look on his face, leans back so she can get a clean shot.

“What’s the name of this place?” I ask her.

“I don’t know.  Danny found it.”

There are joints back home simply called Eat. I make a note to look that character up, strictly for the fun of it. It would please me if, next time we walked by, I could match the characters. Eat.

On our way out, we stop at the register, where there’s a stack of menus, most of them one page lists, all in Chinese.  A few of them are compendious, multi-page books, with large color photos of the food and writing next to the photos, none of it in English. The thing to do, I guess, is take pictures of the pictures so as not to bother guy eating noodles and cutlet.

I look for a business card. Forget about it. Besides, what am I going to do, call for carry out?

Somehow, the cashier gets the message and writes on my daughter’s phone: Cheng Huang Miao Chi.  That’s a lot of words.  Could it be Eat at Chou’s?  Back in the apartment, I run it through my Google Translate.  I get “Cheng Huang MI AOC Hi”  Hi! TripAdvisor has a listing for the restaurant. The title of the first review is: “Do Not Eat Here.”

inspection poster

Late that afternoon I stop by to see man with the sewing machine on the sidewalk, the one who wouldn’t let me take his picture a few days ago.

Flush in cash from the China Construction Bank branch I eventually found, we bought our three-year-old a toy lizard. It’s green, eight inches long, battery operated. According to the instructions, which, miraculously, are provided in both Chinese and English, and which I have read very carefully, when you remove the screws from the lizard’s belly, the battery door should open. Use  two AA batteries. We have a phillips head screwdriver. Wrong size, but four screws come out when I carefully insist. Whereupon two problems emerge.  One, it’s an odd Chinese screw head, with three points (insist too much and you ruin the screwheads), and two, there’s is a fifth screw, deeper than the others.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I read the directions again, a couple times, cursing the fifth screw. Standing at my elbow, the three-year-old watches, waits.

It’s the fifth screw, I tell him. We need a long narrow three-point screwdriver.

Can you fix it?

I’ll have to go out and buy a screwdriver.

My wife suggests I bring the lizard with me, so I can show the person what the problem is.  Provide some context.

I picture myself walking down the sidewalk holding a green lizard.  There are much weirder sights out there, I know that, but I decide to keep it simple.


Man with the sewing machine is fixing a jacket zipper.  He doesn’t even look up. I stand in front of him almost a full minute. He must see my legs and feet. I can’t say “excuse me.” Finally, I carefully thrust my left hand, with a tiny three point screw pinched between my thumb and forefinger, into his field of vision and pantomime the universal motion of a man screwing a screw into a mechanical green lizard.

He stops and looks at the screw, he glances up at me, he shakes his head. No.

And goes back to the zipper.

I would like to say “I’m sorry to be such a pain in the ass,” but I can’t.  I hate to do it, but I touch my phone and carefully thrust it into his field of vision, showing him the screen and the words I’ve photographed.

hardware store

He shakes his head again. No.  As in no I don’t know where there’s a hardware store, or, no I’ve told you no twice now that I don’t have time for your shenanigans. Or possibly no I can’t read. I hope for option B.


The shoe repair man reads the words and points to the end of the block. Go right.  At least that’s what I think he says.

The fruit stand man on the corner reads the words and says, no you have to go left. I go left.

The toy store man reads the words and says go to the right at the next corner.

I find not one but two hardware stores.  The man at the second one I visit immediately decodes my screwdriver pantomime. He looks at the screwhead, smiles, and holds up three fingers. He produces the item.  The screwdriver costs more than two bowls and wonton soup and a beer, but I’ll take it.  I hand him the necessary RMB. I have a whole pocketful of them. I scored at the bank.

Back home, we’ll have a very happy three-year old. And I’m feeling pretty good, too.

Hello. Thank you. Xiexie xiexie xiexie.

photo of photo



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