China: The Search is the Holy Grail

25 Aug 2013
August 25, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the fourth post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Beijing Apple Store

Our first stop: Apple's newest and largest store in Beijing

My first escape from our tour came with a shock. I had decided to buy a new 11 inch MacBook Air to accompany us on our trip to China. Ostensibly, I had convinced my wife we needed this so we “all” could connect to the Internet while we were there. In reality, I wanted to make sure I had a place to store my photos in a backup place while in country. So, on our second day as I sat down to upload my first photos to my, I mean, our new computer, I was shocked to discover there was no SD card reader slot on the machine. With no slot there’d be no way to copy my images over. I was so surprised, despite having looked in all the right places, I kept looking. “It’s got to be here somewhere,” I remember saying out loud.

Once I accepted my new reality I made plans to visit the huge Apple Store I had spied just a few blocks from our hotel on Beijing’s largest pedestrian street Waifujing. And, my oldest daughter wanted to come with. Perfect. Seeing the “real” China on our own would be a great experience for her (despite the fact that Waifujing is in one of the classiest parts of the city). This would be a teaching moment as she watched me converse with the locals without guide or translator.

In 1974 I took my first overseas trip on a seven month odyssey throughout Europe and the Middle East. My first stop was London. I remember how scared I was to open my mouth and speak to shopkeepers I encountered. And English was their native language! I was afraid of being tagged a crazy American the moment I said anything. That would be pretty evident in Beijing but in the last four decades I had learned to ignore those pesky insecurities. I was now the guy who conversed with strangers in elevators. I wanted my daughter to share that sense of adventure. And I was to be her guide.

As we exited the hotel and started to walk down the street we were pretty excited to be “in” the culture. Now it was real. No tour bus to insulate us. And I knew my daughter would be watching me talk with the locals. But I couldn’t have anticipated where this would take us.

When we entered Apple’s largest store in Asia I walked up to one of the greeters at the door and asked “Do you speak English?” Yes? Good. “I’m looking for an SD card reader for my MacBook Air.” The look on his face said it all. “You know, a camera card reader. (I pantomimed the camera, taking a photo, turning the camera upside down, taking out the SD card and putting it in a slot of the computer.) “Ah!” (I had always been good at charades.) He went to find a salesperson who could help me.

When the savvy Apple employee approached she asked me in English: “You’re looking for an SD card?” No, I was looking for an external SD card reader. She took me down a beautiful circular glass staircase to look in their accessories department. I was encouraged. My daughter was taking it all in. The Apple lady looked around. Not finding it she excused herself to ask for help. When she returned she told me the bad news: “We don’t sell those here.” I was shocked. Yes, that’s the only way to describe it. If the Apple Store didn’t have a reader who would? And if they built their laptop with no reader the least they could do was to sell something I could plug in.

So surprised, I thought perhaps she still didn’t understand what I was looking for. I repeated. “You don’t sell a reader?” I started to play charades again when she stopped me. “I know what you’re talking about,” she said in perfect English. “No, we don’t. You might try the Sony store a few blocks away.” Resigned to this twist in our plans I asked her if she could write down the address so I could show it to someone in case, no, when we got lost. As she handed me the paper I said in my best Mandarin: 謝謝。Thank you.

Directions to the Sony Store

Our Apple saleslady gave me directions to our next stop.

So began our quest. She told me the Sony store was a few blocks away and drew me a map. So, if the store wasn’t visible from the street, we’d have to ask a stranger for help. We were walking down one of the best known pedestrian streets in central Beijing and my daughter was absorbing everything. “Look, there’s a white woman on that billboard!” It was full immersion into Asian culture and biases.

After a few very long blocks we had no idea if we were on the right track. I found a street vendor and silently handed her my piece of paper. She had a short discussion with her coworker and pointed us “that way.” We continued another few long blocks, finally stopping in front of an expensive jewelry store. “Let’s go in here. I’m sure they speak English.” Once again, I handed the salesperson my note and she took me by the hand and led me to another door that opened into the biggest high class mall I’d ever seen: the Oriental Plaza. It was so big it was divided into zones and once inside we could have been anywhere in upper class America. She pointed across the walkway to the Sony Store. We had passed the first part of our quest. As we entered I went directly to the counter to find my English speaker. They grabbed a guy from the back and I repeated what I was looking for. He started to laugh. “There’s no need to sell SD card readers here. All Sony computers already have them. Don’t all Macs have them?” You think? Sigh.

He had no suggestions as to where to look next but I asked him to write down “SD Card Reader” in Chinese (you’ll be interested to know that “SD” in Chinese is “SD”). I was tired of playing charades. Perhaps I could stand on a street corner handing strangers my Chinese translation. Now that would be an experience my daughter would never forget (but one she’d never, ever agree to —death by parental embarrassment is a universal teenage angst).

We had failed. But then I remembered my prime directive: my daughter was learning how to navigate an alien landscape. We hadn’t failed; we had scored big time. We headed back to the hotel, now a few miles away. And, suddenly, something wonderful happened. As we waited to cross a busy street she suddenly wrapped her arm around mine and held it tightly. She had already learned that Chinese drivers and bicyclists simply ignored traffic lights. Dodging cars and bikes, along with the locals, I cherished that moment. When was the last time she held onto me that tightly?

A few blocks later we passed a tiny electronics store. It looked like the whole family was behind the counter. I handed one of them my Chinese “SD card reader” calling card and he immediately opened a case and pulled one out. Thirty yuan (about $9). Perfect.

The goal of a quest is to take it and to experience it. My daughter and I shared our first encounter together with Chinese culture, making it back just in time to get on our tour bus, once more somewhat insulated from the country we had come to experience. The bonus: crossing that street with my daughter (yes, and finding that card reader too).

Thanks Apple for not putting that SD card slot in the 11 inch MacBook Air!

1 reply
  1. Ralph Bunker says:

    What a wonderful story. I spent the month on June in Paris working with a colleague who was on sabbatical at the University of Paris Diderot. I too needed to visit the Apple store and can not speak French. So I googled the Apple store and printed out the map. It was supposedly about a mile from where we were staying. But I could not find it. Finally I was about to give up when I noticed a sign on a building (not on a street corner) that had the name of the street I was looking for. It turned out that the “street” was the name of a huge underground mall under the Louvre and the Google map described the layout of this underground mall.

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