The bar is called Speak Low, on Fuxing Middle Road in Shanghai.
My daughter and I have come here on a Saturday night for a few cocktails. This is the third F & B joint (Food and Bar) I’ve been to. All three with ground level entrance, little more than an anteroom with space for a desk and two greeters, and a door that leads to a stairway that leads to second, third, and fourth floor rooms with bar, tables, low light, and a lot of noise. The room we’re in is full of youngish people–tables and chairs for 30 or so–maybe seventy-five people total seated and standing. They have shiny new shoes, important hair, and serious glasses. Shanghai chic. This might as well be Brooklyn.
“I’d like the Old Fashioned,” I tell our server.
She nods and says in English that the drink comes with…something.
“What?” It’s noisy. And I’m hard of hearing. In noisy I’m very hard of hearing.
Something, she says again. It comes with something.
I make a face indicating that one of us is stupid and it’s definitely not her.
“Bacon,” my daughter says at last. “Your drink comes with bacon.”
She orders a celery gimlet for herself.
I’d like to ask our server to explain the name of the bar, Speak Low. Were they aiming for Speak Easy? If so, I’m glad they muffed it
After a second drink I find my way to the restroom, prepared to use the two words of Chinese that I know.
There’s one door. No words in English, no Chinese characters, no icons on the door. So: co-ed. The door is not ajar. It’s closed. I wait a minute. Then another minute. When at last I pull the door open, two women at the one sink look at me in surprise. Behind them, two doors, behind which business is transacted.
I would like to say excuse me. That’s what I would say at home. Unfortunately those are not my two words in Chinese.
“Nihao,” I say instead. Hello. Feeling pretty stupid, I shut the door on them, out of respect. After a minute they push the door open and step out.
I would still like to say excuse me.
“Xiexie,” I say instead. Thank you.
I may be stupid, but at least I’m polite about it.
This trip Speak Low is a resonant term. Also a misnomer of sorts. Who speaks low? In 48 hours I’ve gotten an earful of Chinese.
On the flight over, the carrier in Detroit filled up with Chinese people going directly to Shanghai. They looked like some serious Chinese, the clothes, the walk, the flat expressions; like people who live in China, not Plymouth, and were going home. Behind my wife and me a couple took their seats and began immediately to talk in Chinese. Mostly loud animated explanations. Mostly the man talking to the woman. They talked loud nonstop for the next 13 hours of the 13 hour nonstop flight. Before take-off, through the dinner service, as we crossed the Bering sea passing into deep darkness, through the wake up meal and snack that followed, while the cabin crew prepared the cabin for landing and advised us that our luggage in the overhead might have shifted, this couple yakked and yelled at each other.
“What could they possibly be talking about?” I murmured to my wife.
She rolled her eyes and slumped against her window. “Just ignore them.”
When I told my daughter about the pair she nodded and said people talk like that—speak loud—over here.
Next day, in front of our grandson’s preschool, one of the six guards standing out front verbally attacked a car that pulled up and parked wrong. At least I think that’s what was going on. One guard leaned over and yelled through the open window at the driver. The driver yelled back. They could have been talking about the weather.
At the grocery store next to the kids’ apartment, where I went for a liter of milk, the noise was deafening, women shouting at each other over bok choy and mushrooms, possibly just making loud small talk, swapping recipes, but to my ear, an auditory episode of mortal combat.
From the sidewalk you can hear the yelling inside food stalls.
Personal space varies from one culture to another, something Sting posited (see: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me). Americans like to maintain a certain distance—four to five feet—between speakers; Chinese speakers are less inclined to do so. Perhaps in like fashion, one culture is more tolerant of loud talk than the other.
The Sinology Institute describes the four tones common to spoken Chinese, noting: “If you put the ‘high voice’ (first tone) and ‘suspicious voice’ (2nd tone) together with the fourth tone (anger), then there are 83% of tones in Mandarin Chinese that may sound unhappy and aggressive and make you feel uneasy” (my emphasis).
It’s all about what I would call the efficacy of loud.
Evan Osnos, in Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, devotes part of a chapter to Li Jang, a popular—and highly successful and extremely rich—English teacher. (Yes, you read that right.). His winning and evidently highly effective teaching principle is “English as a shouted language.” Li stumbled upon his approach when studying for a language proficiency exam he had already failed once. Osnos writes that Li “studied for [the] exam by reading aloud and found the louder he read, the bolder he felt and the better he spoke.” Li’s shouting technique, he believes, unleashes “the international muscles.”
If I weren’t distracted by eels, dried ducks, and pig faces as I walk the neighborhood, I might dedicate myself to vocabulary acquisition. Learning one word a day, by the end of this trip I would have 20 new words. That’s a 1000 percent increase in vocabulary. I figure it’s not too late to start.
Lu. That’s the Chinese word for road. Speak Low is on Fuxing Lu. To take possession of the word, however, I shouldn’t say it like a Midwestern American. I should say it loud. Lu!
This morning I order coffee at Pain Chaud, a cool French pastry and coffee shop next door. Yes, French. Adding to the linguistic confusion. Nihao! I thunder when the little barista greets me. She’s French and looks at me like I’m nuts. Xiexie! for the coffee, I shout when the little Chinese girl sets my cup on the counter. She ducks for cover, behind her giant espresso machine.
The approach will take some practice. It would help if I had five or ten more words. But it’s a start.
And using Chinese as a shouted language is better than being meek and misunderstood. Maybe by the end of the trip I’ll be standing in the middle of the Lu! exercising my international muscles.