The Best Time I Had a Misunderstanding in a Foreign Country
by The Hairpin
Two days into an eight-week job in Southern China (at age 20), I went to a theme park in Shenzhen that featured all the incredible wonders of the world (Great Wall, Eiffel Tower, etc.) in miniature. I was feeling very lonely in a land where I didn’t speak the language and was going to be on my own for eight weeks, so I sat down in front of miniature Ankor Wat and started to cry. A bus of Chinese tourists promptly pulled up behind me and unloaded, and I was either interpreted to be a feature of the park or such an incredible sight to see that they all lined up, one by one, to pose for photos with me in front of miniature Ankor Wat, which only made me cry more. Somewhere out there are 30+ snapshots of me crying with a selection of Chinese tourists, and I want those photos, badly. — Lucy Lindsey
My friend Carrie and I were traveling through Mexico the summer after college, and one day at an outdoor market this leathery old man appeared in front of us holding what genuinely appeared to be a bag of poop. I mean, I know it probably wasn’t poop, because how do you really even prepare that, but also it was in this raggedy little sandwich baggie knotted at the top, and it was … brown and opaque, and that’s what we thought it was. (And yes, I do know that drinks are served in bags sometimes, but for whatever reason this one said “Not a drink!” to us, but also I guess in retrospect it was almost certainly a drink.) Anyway, we made it clear we weren’t interested and started to walk away, but he followed us very, very closely — like, if we had reached backward, we could have touched him — and so then we ran a little bit in that way where you feel like you’re moving very rapidly but hope no one can tell you’re anything other than totally calm, but then he ran, too, in this frantic shuffle, and then finally Carrie stopped, turned around, and said, in Spanish, “Leave us alone, asshole!” (“Dejanos en paz, pendejo!”), which he then did. Soooo, chocolate milk? A kind of fruit juice I don’t know about? Also, earlier at the market this man had tried to lick Carrie’s shoulder. — Edith Zimmerman
Three years ago I was in Cairo for my friends’ wedding, and they had arranged for us to stay at a nice hotel on the Nile. Egyptians pay a different rate than foreigners for hotels, and since the bride and groom were citizens they registered us under their last names to get the good rate. “If anyone asks your name, don’t tell them. Don’t get room service. And don’t charge anything to the room, pay cash.” It was my first time there, and I was inclined to just do what I was told, thankful for the savings. Our hotel was very secure, and the guards working the metal detectors were friendly, always nodding and smiling. I came to feel pretty comfortable there and forgot about the whole false registration thing. But then one day when I was getting my daily Chinese food from the Chinese restaurant in the hotel (what? It was good!) a hotel manager came up to me. “Hello miss! I notice every day you come here. You get the same thing! Stir fry noodles with chicken? Why do you always get it to-go, and not just order room service? And why do you pay cash?”
I explained to him that I get take-out all the time, I love it, and that I just wanted to eat it in my room, and how did he even know that? I hadn’t seen him before. “We have been watching you, miss. On our cameras.” (Points to surveillance camera.) “Now please tell me your room number?”
“I’m not telling you my room number, that’s the first thing they tell you not to do when you travel!”
“I know miss, but I am the manager. You can trust me. Now tell me your room number.”
“They say not to even tell hotel staff! You could be anyone!” (Grasping at anything here!!)
“Okay miss,” he said. “But I will find out your room number.” And he walked away.
I was spooked — afraid of getting kicked out of the hotel, unwilling to be the one screwing up the wedding plans. When I went up the elevator with my noodles, I got off on three different floors trying to throw off the cameras, taking a bunch of turns and stairwells, jogging and panicked like Run Lola Run. When I told my friends what happened, they laughed. “Don’t worry, he can’t do anything to you. Inshallah! Just don’t tell him your room number.”
Two days later, it was my birthday and also the day of the wedding. I was getting a pedicure in the hotel beauty shop, my feet in two bowls of water, when guess who shows up again?
“Hello again, miss. How are you today?”
“Fine, and how are you?” (Verrrry leery.)
“Wonderful, miss. I see you are getting these beauty treatments. Very nice!”
“Yes!” (Letting my guard down a little.)
“How will you be paying today?” (Aaaah!)
“Miss, I am so sorry to ask you this again, but what is your room number?”
“I told you, I’m not telling you my room number.”
“We have reason to believe you’re not really staying here, miss. Tell me your room number.”
“Nooooo I wooon’t!” And then I started crying (kind of hysterically!), because a) it’s my birthday and I had birthday homesickness already, and b) I didn’t didn’t know how to lie to him and I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me again!
It was like one of those dreams where you can’t run, except it’s real because my feet were in bowls of water so I was literally trapped. Seeing my distress, the pedicurist let him have it. I don’t know what she said, it was in Arabic, but it was cutting, loud, and brief. I was beside myself at that point, and he said in English, “I am very sorry miss. Please get her some juice,” and walked out. She tried to give me juice, and I got more upset and started crying harder. So she started patting my leg and saying, “It is okay, it is okay. I am your sister. I am your sister.” It sounds corny retelling it but it was so sweet in the moment. SISTERHOOD! When I told my friends what had happened, they laughed again. “Good! Remember, when these things happen: Do not cry. Attack. He won’t bother you again.” Which is sort of good life advice in general right? After I’d left for home, there was an attempted bombing outside the hotel. My friends, who had stayed on for their honeymoon, called to let me know that they were fine, and also upon checking out they’d complained about my plight to the clerk, who told them that security at the hotel was heightened due to an anonymous tip and they had thought I could somehow be involved. Haha, I guess they figured it out though. Next time I’ll just pay the regular rate. — Mary Miller
Previously: The Best Time I Fell Down at a Party.
Photo via Flickr