Saturday, February 21, 2009

Communicating Without Words

I've written before about Sydney's multicultural makeup and from time to time at work I run smack across it. On Friday, Neil called and asked me to do a job in a fancy apartment block in the suburb of Eastwood.

"Unit 1, 7 Howe Street, broken window winder in the common area," he said finishing, "Now you know as much about it as I do."

We get these kind of jobs a lot. The real estate companies that manage the property send through work orders that are at times vague, sometimes cryptic. And of course, they want it done yesterday.

I phoned the tenant who requested the work to discover that she was in Canberra. Annette explained that there were three entrances to the building and I should choose the one on Howe St. Not Howe Lane.

"Do you have a key?" she asked.

"Nah, it's a long way to go to the property manager and get a key, we usually just find a way in," I said.

"Well, okay," she said. "Good luck."

I arrived at what I thought was the place to find a modern fortress. Buzzers and card readers.
And the only door with the correct address number was on noisy busy Blaxland Road.

With no key, I was supposed to gain entry to this building and find my way to the broken winder. I started working my way through the buzzer box. Apartment 1, no answer. Apartment 2, same thing. Apartment 3, ditto. All the way to Apartment 14, when someone said "Hello?" For all the noisy truck traffic passing by I had no idea what they said, but I started my pitch.

"Hi, my name is John. I've been sent by the real estate company to repair a broken window. Is it possible that you could let me in?"


Hmm, no English here. I could try Spanish, but I forgot most of that when I learned French. I could try French, but I forgot most of that when I learned Chinese. But in Eastwood, Chinese is a very good language to know.

"Um, ah, wo shir, uh, wo yao, uh, kan kan ni de, uh, apartment."


"Wo yao kan kan...uh...."

"Kan kan?"

"Dui," I say, "kan kan" (Yeah, I am here to look at your apartment.")

Bzzzzzzzzzz. And I'm in.

I press the elevator to floor one to emerge to find...winder-less windows. I'm in, but in the wrong part of the apartments. The door out is one way into the courtyard. I take it. It locks behind me at which point I must again find my way in.

I scan the patios that back onto the garden. Several have laundry out drying on folding racks. People do this everywhere, especially in Asia. It's a simple equation, electric dryers cost money, the sun is free, but don't tell that to the Skippies. It shits the Anglos to no end, enough that they enact property covenants against hanging laundry out on the balcony.

The issue really brings out the racists. My jaw dropped one day while listening to talkback radio. The host asked people to phone in their complaints about life in Sydney. "The way THEY hang their laundry out on the veranda's," one woman derided. "It's awful. They even hang out their underwear. Can you imagine? It looks like Hong Kong."

Her contempt was palpable. And the host went right along with it. But to me, laundry and an open patio door is good news. It means someone is home.

I jump up among the shrubbery in the garden and, seeing a patio door open and laundry on racks, I use my universal "Hello?" A woman pokes her head out. "You come in?" she asks. "Yes, please."

She lets me in and I see the broken winders. But taking them out is just half the battle. I have to get new ones, that means leaving the building and getting back in. To find an ally, I knock on her door, but she's leaving. So I start knocking on random doors. Unit 8, nothing. Same, same. Up to unit 31 when a very old Chinese man answers the door.

We exchange a few words including 'putong hua' which means Mandarin. He smiles and nods. I recognize about every tenth word, but that's often enough. I show him the broken winder and start up all my body language about I have to go out "huai lai", but need to come back in. Can I 'da dian hua' him to bzzzzzzzz me in?" Then he takes me down the hall to show me two more broken winders, so I tell him I will 'gaosu tamen' the property managers that they need fixing too. But mingtian, not jingtian. Just these two are getting replaced jingtian.

On the way out, I prop the door open with a rock kept near the door, just to expedite. It usually works and I was gone only a half hour, but during my time at the locksmith, I realize once again that my time in China taught me a lot about communication. That is, most communication is contextual. Show up in a uniform, with a screwdriver and a window winder and do some pointing back and forth and most people will figure it out. Especially people who spend most of their retirement years hanging laundry on balconies and living where almost no one speaks their language.

Arriving back, I got back in via the propped door and replace the winders. I stop by to thank my old Chinese friend and then ring Annette to find out where she'd like me to leave the keys.

"So how did you get in?" she asks.

I pause to consider giving her the old "We have our ways" and keep the mystery shrouded. Instead I tell her, as nonchalantly as I can, my ancient secret for communicating across cultures.

"Oh, I speak a little Chinese."