I arrived in Shanghai on a sticky mid-July afternoon in 2010 with two suitcases, a nonfunctioning cellphone, and a piece of paper that an acquaintance assured me read, "Hello, I don't speak Chinese. Where is the bus to Jing'an Temple?" It was my first time in China, and also in Asia — and paradoxically, I was home. A few weeks ago, I had received an unexpectedly enormous tax refund and decided to quit my job, move to China, and see how long I could make it last.
Like many people who don't speak Chinese, I found the language intimidating. I didn't know what to make of the writing system. I knew that spoken Mandarin had tones, and I'd heard that if you used the wrong tone, you could accidentally deliver a grave insult when you were trying to ask for water. I assumed learning the basics would take at least a decade, and, more important, I thought I could get by without them. In the not-too-distant past, I had spent a semester studying in Europe, where I'd gained confidence in my ability to communicate via body language.
Later, I would appreciate the ways in which Chinese accommodates its learners. Grammar rules are unobtrusive and words can be astoundingly logical. January is "month one," February "month two." Mayonnaise is "egg yolk sauce." But at the time, I was worried about accidentally suggesting someone procreate with his mother when I was trying to ask for the time.
Though the slip of paper would get me from the bus to the apartment I'd found and rented on the internet, I'd been traveling for 36 hours already and was feeling overwhelmed. I set off for the taxi stand instead, and there, I discovered I did not know how to pronounce my address.
It turned out there were a lot of things that were hard to convey through gesticulation alone, including "Where is the bathroom?" "Is this yogurt?" and "Is this a restaurant or your street-level dining room?"
I had pictured life abroad as glamorous. I had not imagined eating every meal at McDonald's, which I did for my first several weeks in Shanghai, because it was the dining establishment that most went out of its way to cater to clueless foreigners. Each McDonald's had a laminated menu that the staff whipped out whenever a baffled expat approached the counter, allowing you to order by pointing at what you wanted.
Every time I ventured out of my apartment, I encountered more things I needed to, but could not, communicate. I couldn't take taxis because I didn't know how to pronounce my destinations. I couldn't buy products whose packaging obscured their contents because I couldn't read what was written on them. I was constantly helpless.
One of the few people I knew in Shanghai was a friend from college, Chelsea, who was the first to tell me about the Magic Number. She described it as a free hotline for people who didn't speak Chinese.
"It's free?" I asked suspiciously.
We all know that many things are free and many things are good, but few things are both.
"It's free," she assured me. She was under the impression that the government had set it up to help tourists navigate the city. I first called the Magic Number a few days later, when a plumber showed up at my apartment. For some reason, the water had been turned off in our unit, and our landlady had texted my roommate to say that someone would be coming by to fix it.
I was living in a four-bedroom apartment I shared with a rotating cast of foreigners. But on that day, I was the only one home.
The plumber arrived in a jumpsuit and sneakers that he removed in the hallway before entering the apartment. He began speaking to me, unsurprisingly, in Chinese. And I, unsurprisingly, was lost. I sighed and settled in for a stretch of feeling frustrated and helpless, but then I remembered the number I'd saved in my phone.
"You have reached the Shanghai Call Center," an upbeat recorded American voice greeted me. "For services in European languages, please press one."
I pressed one. The phone rang, and a woman picked up. "Thank-you-for-calling-the-Shanghai-Call-Center-how-can-I-help-you?" she fired off in one breath.
"Um, hi," I replied, not really sure how to begin the call. "There's a plumber here. I'm at home, in my apartment, and he's supposed to be here. He's here to fix something." I already sensed that this was too much backstory, but I soldiered on. "I think he's trying to tell me something, but I don't speak Chinese, and I was wondering if you could — " What was my ask here, even? "Tell me what he's saying?"
She seemed unfazed. "Please pass the phone."
I held out my phone and gestured for the plumber to take it. He stared, unsure what to do. I gestured again. He took the phone and talked to the woman for a while, then passed it back to me.
"So, he's saying that your water has been turned off, right?"
"Yes!" I exclaimed.
"And so, he needs to check your pipes, to make sure they're not leaking, and then if everything is okay, he'll turn the water back on."
"Okay!" The plumber's message was so simple, it seemed a wonder I hadn't been able to interpret it myself. Though perhaps the intricacies of plumbing are not best communicated by pantomime.
"Do you want me to stay on the phone while he checks?" she offered.
"Um, sure," I sputtered. "If you don't mind."
She didn't, so we both sat on the phone in absolute silence while the plumber inspected the pipes under the kitchen sink and the ones in the bathroom. After a while, I felt awkward about leaving the woman hanging, so I started giving her unnecessary updates.
"Now he's in the bathroom," I narrated.
After one last conference with the plumber, the operator told me that everything looked good and that the plumber would turn the water back on. I thanked her profusely, as did the plumber.
When I hung up, I realized I had found my lifeline.
I hadn't felt particularly conflicted about the first call — after all, it had been a plumbing-or-death situation — but the next night, I found myself in a taxi with a driver who was trying to ask me something.
I hesitated. Was this worth calling the Magic Number over?
I called, passed the phone to the driver, and then the operator explained that he had been trying to ask me which route I wanted him to take. "I told him just to take the fastest route," she said.
"Wow, okay," I stammered, shocked, again, by how simple the information he was trying to convey had been. "Thank you so much!"
Pretty soon, I was calling the Magic Number for everything. When I went to the fruit market and didn't know how to ask for strawberries, I called the Magic Number. If I was lost and needed directions, I reached for my phone. Any time I was stuck, I dialed 962288 and pressed one.