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THIS MAN HAVE COME FROM CHINA TO FIND HIS DAUGHTER WHO HAVE SOME TROUBLE. HE DOES NOT SPEAK ENGLISH.
Jian walked into Leeds University and handed his message, written for him on the back of an aeroplane boarding pass, to the front desk security guard. This was the first black person he had ever met and he noted the paleness of the man's palms and the brown tea in his mug. It seemed to have milk in it, the way Mongolians liked it.
The guard took his time, turning the boarding pass over and considering the flight number - AR574 from Beijing Capital Airport - and, in irritation, Jian's fingers tightened on the handle of his suitcase. He wiped sweat beads off his forehead.
He was wondering whether to give the guard a cigarette to help move things along when the man looked up, and the whites of his eyes seemed to shine out of his face. He beckoned for Jian to follow.
The corridors were painted rather an informal yellow. He was led past a lounge area, like the one at the airport, and a refectory noisy with the alien clamour of metal cutlery on plates. Students bustled round. Jian was used to towering over people but it wasn't going to happen here, a lot of these guys were over one eighty. Some of the girls too. There were many different races but everyone seemed to be getting along.
He was led to a door labelled '106' and ushered into an office where a middle-aged woman addressed him in awitter as meaningless as birdsong. Her hair was blonde, her eyes a disconcerting green. She wasn't wearing a uniform but she appeared to have her own computer, so was presumably of more consequence than the guard. He replied, in Mandarin Chinese, 'Wo zhao wo de nu'er... I'm looking formy daughter.' No one would understand, but it satisfied a need to hear his own voice and words he could comprehend, it soothed away the unfamiliarity. The guard and the woman babbled, and he said - surely it was obvious - 'Get a translator.'
Back home Jian had rank and status and was used to people rushing to do his bidding. But he was nothing here, just a nuisance. If he wanted things done he'd have to do them himself.
He stalked out, the guard following at his heels. The bulky suitcase made him list to one side as he retraced his steps to the refectory. He stood on a chair and stepped up from it onto a tabletop. A girl twirling yellow noodles onto a fork looked at him with alarm and slid her tray away.
He cleared his throat and yelled, 'You ren hui shuo zhong guo hua ma?... Does anybody here speak Mandarin Chinese?'
A hush fell. The noodles slipped off the fork. Someone laughed nervously. Making a scene didn't worry him, he didn't feel any pull of social convention here. These people weren't his people, he could make monkey noises and it wouldn't matter. He bellowed his question again, so even the queue over by the vending machines in the corner shut up and looked at him.
The guard beckoned him down with angry sweeps of his arm. Jian ignored him and scanned the crowd, picking out the Asian faces. All he saw was curiosity or alarm. Perhaps no one could help him, perhaps there was no one he could speak to in this whole peculiar city.
Another security guard was coming, this one portly and white. The guards looked at each other and Jian recognised the silent communication that passed between them, he knew it well - citizen acting up, placate and eject. The black guard put a hand on his leg.
Jian told him, 'You don't understand. My daughter is in trouble.' But of course no one was listening.
Copyright © 2008 by Simon Lewis