Memoir

I Was a Chinese Helpline’s Number One Caller. I Had a Problem.

The “magic number” helped foreigners like me get by without learning the language. But I didn’t feel at home in China until I finally hung up the phone.

I Was a Chinese Helpline’s Number One Caller. I Had a Problem.

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 OK, he’ll turn the water back on.”

“OK!” 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.

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“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, OK,” 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.

Within a week, I had the script down pat. I learned to skip the backstory and get straight to my request.

“Hello, there’s a guard yelling and wildly gesticulating that I can’t park my bike here. I’ll pass the phone.”

I learned that they couldn’t give recommendations. They could list all of the restaurants near me, but they couldn’t say which one was their favorite. Everything else was fair game.

Other foreigners in Shanghai who spoke little to no Chinese seemed to agree that the Magic Number was a godsend.

“I must call like 30 times a day,” friends would gush. And I would think, “Well, I only call like 10.”

I was taking things very literally in those days. There’s little room for subtlety when your conversations are like a game of charades.

But I also wasn’t surprised that others were calling so frequently. The Magic Number was one of the greatest ideas I’d ever heard of. The service was helpful and efficient. With it, you could survive in China without speaking Chinese. Why wouldn’t you call 30 times a day?

One morning, about six months into my stay in China, the Magic Number called me.

“Hello, this is the Shanghai Call Center,” a woman named Jenny on the other end said when I picked up. “You must be surprised that I’m calling you.”

I was. And then I was instantly suspicious. Had the service not been free all along? Were they calling to collect thousands of dollars in back charges?

“Yes,” I replied cautiously.

“I think you must be very familiar with our services,” she said in a way that perhaps implied I was too familiar with their services.

“Am I in trouble?” I asked.

She laughed. “Oh no,” she assured me. “Actually, you’re one of our best customers.”

Uh oh. You don’t normally consider yourself a customer when you’re not paying for something. If I walk by a man playing an acoustic cover of Beyoncé in Central Park, he is not allowed to send me a bill.

“I’m calling to invite you to our Chinese New Year dinner as a special guest,” she continued. “Because from our records I see that you are one of our most frequent callers for the year.”

“Wait what?” I said. “But I’ve only been in China for six months.”

“Also, from our notes, I can see that you are very polite,” she added, perhaps to un-bruise my feelings.

“You’re taking notes on each call?” This was a lot to take in.

“Yes, and people write that you are very polite.”

“Huh.” Really though? In six months, I had racked up one of the highest call volumes for the year?

“So, can you come?” she asked.

This was the wrong question to ask, but it was the only one I could think of: “Is it free?”

The formal invitation arrived in my inbox a few days later. It included a note from Jenny. “There will be no charge or any demands from you since you are one of our distinguished guests,” she wrote. “Please just enjoy the dinner and the entertainment shows which will be put on by the girls you have been talking to over the phone.”

I was kindly requested to RSVP by calling the Magic Number, which had been printed on the invitation so we could all pretend that I didn’t have it memorized.

It had never occurred to me that I’d been speaking to the same people over and over again. But it made sense; presumably there were not an infinite number of women working at the call center. Still, I hadn’t thought of myself as a known entity to my most-dialed number. When I hung up, did they turn to the room? “That was Audrey again. She was trying to buy a fitted sheet/She got lost in an H&M/She has a cold and wanted ‘the good stuff.’”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much the Magic Number operators knew about me. They knew I liked yogurt and was allergic to powdered laundry detergent. They knew where I lived, where I worked, what shape my bicycle was in.

I, in turn, became curious about them. What did they do for fun? What were the perks and challenges of their jobs?

In the days leading up to the dinner, I started asking around, assuming others had received the same invitation I had. But whenever I mentioned it, I got blank stares.

“How often do you call?” people would ask.

I’d shrug. “A few times a day.”

Gone were the claims of calling 30 times a day. In their place, an awed, “That’s a lot.”

I’d assumed that everyone else was like me, dialing the number on instinct when they got in a cab. But actually, they’d been learning Chinese.

I did not feel great about this. In fact, I felt like a fairly huge idiot. I had justified not learning the language by telling myself that it was hard and that I was only planning to stay a year, but here was proof that everyone else could do it.

I did the only thing I could think of when I felt overwhelmed: I called the Magic Number. I asked if I could bring a date to the party.

A few weeks later, I dragged my friend Michael to a historic hotel in downtown Shanghai.

We found our way to an elegant ballroom filled with tables of young women. Our table was, as promised, populated by the people I had been talking to all day.

They were mostly, like me, in their early 20s, and just starting their careers. Few had grown up in Shanghai; many had come here for school and had been in the city not much longer than I had. They were friendly and liked meeting new people — especially people from other parts of the world. They spent their days helping people who were lost or afraid or unsure what was in their coffee.

I came bearing questions. First and foremost: How was the hotline free?

The Shanghai Call Center was, in part, funded by the government. The rest of its budget came from a small department that cold-called people to sell newspaper subscriptions.

“What are some of the strange calls you get?”

“Penis,” they all said immediately. The operators said they received a fairly regular flow of calls from Western men asking how to say the word “penis” in Chinese.

“And then what?” I asked.

“We tell them.”

“And then what?”

“They say thank you.”

“What else?” I asked.

A decent number of people seemed to confuse the Magic Number with a hotel concierge. They would call and ask the Magic Number to call them back at 7 a.m. to wake up them up. Others would try to place delivery orders.

Sometimes, the Magic Number was called in to pinch-hit in relationships. One woman told me about a call she received from a man who wanted her to translate a swell of emotion. “Can you tell my girlfriend that I love her?” he asked.

“But… how did he know he loved her if they didn’t even have enough language in common to say that?” I wondered.

It was strange, but also nice, to put faces to the voices I’d been speaking with for months. The women at our table were interesting and accomplished. They had all mastered at least one foreign language, but most were bona fide polyglots. They said they liked their jobs. They enjoyed helping people, and they also had fun when the calls were slow. They especially liked those shifts; when the phones weren’t ringing, they played games, or watched videos, or sat around talking.

Now I felt bad. Were their best days at work the ones when I happened to be out of town?

No, no, they assured me. They liked their work. And besides, I was always polite when I called.

I kept looking around for other foreigners. I had assumed that I wouldn’t be the only one at the dinner. After all, Jenny had said, “one of the most frequent callers for the year,” indicating that there were others in my boat.

But the only other foreigners present were two language instructors: an American man who spoke near-perfect Chinese, and a Russian woman who was also fluent in English and Chinese. I was, it seemed, the only caller to have been invited — perhaps out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to survive on my own for the four hours the operators were at dinner.

In the days leading up to the dinner, I had thought about what it meant to rack up the highest call volume for the year. I sensed that it wasn’t good. But how bad was it?

When you look up and find you’re the only one doing something, you’ve stumbled upon an idea that’s either incredibly smart or extremely stupid. And I was starting to suspect that my Magic Number stats were not the work of a genius.

Up until that point, I had thought of language as nothing more than a tool for communicating ideas; the Magic Number was simply a more convenient alternative. But now that I was a distinguished-guests party of one, I saw a secondary function: Language helped forge connections, or, more aptly, its absence created a sense of remove.

I’ve always been quick to talk to strangers and endlessly fascinated by the details of lives that are not my own. But in Shanghai, I had dropped the habit of conversing with people I interacted with, because I couldn’t, and my curiosity had withered. I had begun to see the non-English-speakers around me purely as people I needed something from or who needed something from me. I never stopped to wonder what their lives looked like once I vanished from in front of them: what they cared about, what they were having for dinner that night, whether they had ever found themselves far from home, and what they had done while they were there.

The morning after the Magic Number dinner, I went to a bookstore and bought my first Chinese textbook. Sitting at the banquet table, I had realized that I was doing something wrong, and I needed to fix it. And so, I set out to study Chinese, because, on the off-chance I was still in Shanghai next year, I didn’t want to be a translation hotline’s top caller for the second year in a row.

In time, I found I could complain about the weather in Chinese, or purchase some really cool sedatives that somehow were available over-the-counter, and even travel on my own throughout the country. My curiosity returned; a year passed, and instead of returning to the U.S., I stayed.

When I started learning Chinese, I was focused on survival and expressing my wants and needs. What I heard in response was less crucial. As I grew more comfortable with the language, it flipped: I could explain my way around words I didn’t know (“the thing you put on a bed that goes under your head”), and now I cared more about what people were saying back to me. I studied Chinese, at first, because I wanted to speak, and later, because I wanted to understand.

When I look back at my time in China, it’s these conversations — chitchatting with cab drivers, the camaraderie with the women I bought breakfast from each morning, my friendship with neighbors — that mark the transition from when I saw Shanghai as a temporary sojourn to when it started to really feel like home. Rarely were these conversations profound. More often, it was innocuous small talk or neighborhood gossip — but they all came together to form a bigger picture.