Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Leaving Shanghai By Boat

I've always been told that the best way to arrive inor depart from Shanghai is by boat.

The ship blasted its horn and slowly shuddered toward the center of the Huanpu River; the feted moment had arrived. Knots of passengers, myself amongst them, held on to the viewing deck railings and feasted in the exhilaration of departure. The engine eased into cruising mode and with deliberate certainty downtown Shanghai began slipping away.

From the clear vantage of the river the skyline formed an endless collection of enormous, concrete fingers below which is was difficult to imagine a street life of humans and vehicles. Slowly the edges of downtown dissolved into a thin veil of brown smog but the city didn't let up for an instant and with steel determination become ever more industrial. Along came the dockyards, mile upon mile upon concrete mile: unending battalions of cranes swinging through their 180 degree arcs to create or dismantle city blocks worth for shipping crates. Yawning dry docks held iceberg sized ships clear of the water, their great hulls being worked on by microscopic humans. In others, new ships were taking form and demanding such prodigious amounts of iron that I began to wonder where it could all have possibly come from. To port and starboard the river traffic was unrelenting and even when we entered the estuary of the Huanpu vast sihouettes of ships rose and fell on the tide on all sides of us.

The high season for the Shanghai-Osaka ferry company hadn't yet arrived, as a result there were literally more crew than passengers on the boat. My friend Mark, who'd done the crossing the year before, had suggested I forego a cabin and instead pay for a space in the tatami matted communal rooms. "You'll spend all your time talking to the people there anyway", he'd added. Instead I'd opted for a four bearth cabin with the hopes of being alone. I intended to write the rough copy of Japanese version of the Phrasemaker series during the forty-eight hour crossing making peace and quiet was an absolute must. Despite the sparcity of passengers I was bunked with two middle-aged Japanese gentlemen. A quick enquiry showed me they spoke little intelligible English and even less Chinese. I decided a move was necessary and hurried down to the purser's office where with a smile, a wink and an extra twenty dollars I was given a luxury bearth all to myself on the upper deck, private bathroom included.

Japanese is a beast of a language. At first glance, when looking at it under the magnifying glass of the latin alphabet, it seems quite simple: the pronunciation is easy and the structure appears straightforward. From that point on it grows ever more complicated. The Japanese seem to have a distinct knack for breaking the world up into such intricate detail that, by comparison, English appears blunt and even quite brutish. I struggled to find the words that translated best and in many cases simply had to hope for the best. When it came to numbers, I discovered that Japanese had practically gone into the realm of absurdity. They make use of two systems, one set when talking of unclassified items up to ten with a entirely unrelated set being used in most other circumstances. And when it came to concocting the words for "one day", as in "I've been in Japan for one day" - it made no sense at all. I can only conclude that, as the Japanese term excludes both the words "one" and "day", it must be some form of idiom. Fortunately I managed to find a deinite pattern to slip it into. With perseverance the Japanese language finally acquiesced and began falling into an identifiable and useful formula.

Just before sunset on the second day we sailed under the bridge linking the islands of Honshu and Kyushu and entered Japan's Inland Sea. The female half of a sarong clad Japanese couple beamed with delight. "We have been away from Japan for six month", she informed me in choppy English. " I am so happy I see my country. Tomorrow I go home". On both sides of the ferry verdant hills drifted up from the shoreline with neat and orderly towns hugging their lower aprons and spreading out at the water's edge into ports and dockyards. Then, in a nod to incongruity, a scale replica of St. Mark's Square, Venice, appeared on the starboard side only to drift away again like a mirage. As sunset slipped into night, the surrounding landscape slowly dissolved into myriad constellations of light and I returned to my cabin to finish up the Japanese Phrasemaker.

At nine the following morning we arrived in Osaka.