Although the city was plastered with advertisements for the U.S. film Pirates of the Caribbean, the home-grown hit of the season was Un cuento chino, which translates literally as “A Chinese story,” but colloquially as “A tall tale,” among other things – let’s just say the title has layers of meaning in Argentine culture. The film, like most Argentine cinema, is entertaining, thoughtful, and well-crafted, and stars Ricardo Darín, the country’s number one male lead. It tells the story of the chance meeting of Jun, a young Chinese immigrant who speaks no Spanish, with Roberto, the Argentine son of Italian immigrants who inherited their hardware store in Buenos Aires, and the relationship that develops between these two men who have no way to communicate but through gesture.
I elected not to see this film when our group was in the country, as I was busy chasing down a movie more obscure (see “Magical history tour,” March 4 blog post). By the time I saw the hit of the year on DVD in Massachusetts, it had won awards at festivals in Argentina, Cuba, Spain, and Miami, and a classmate and I had had our own tiny “cuento chino” in Buenos Aires.
We students had been cautioned not to over-pack – the bus to New York City took only one suitcase and one carry-on for each passenger, and our professor Eve had said we could do as the Argentines did and wear the same clothes more than one day a week. Well, yes, but… After eight days of traveling on private and public transportation, walking my feet off in the humidity, and going non-stop 12 to 16 hours a day, my clothes needed a good bath.
Although its service was convenient, the hotel charged about $5 to wash and dry each remera (T-shirt) and more for a pair of pants. I calculated that it would cost about $100 to do my two bags of laundry. Eve had recommended that we go to the little commercial laundry up the street; unfortunately, its extensive hours didn’t correspond with our ridiculously long days, so I ended up dropping off my clothes on the Tuesday morning we took the ferry across the Río de la Plata to Colonia, Uruguay. We wouldn’t be back until midnight, and Wednesday was Primer Gobierno Patrio, the national holiday commemorating the May 1810 independence. Good thing I’d bought two new T-shirts at the independent book publishing festival on Saturday.
One of the Labor Studies students, Tiffany, had walked to the little laundry with me. I began the logistics conversation with the owner in English and Spanish, but my castellano wasn’t spectacular, and I kept asking him to repeat what he’d said. Tiffany stepped in, conversing with him in Mandarin; then he said to her, “Wait a minute – where are you from?” When she responded, “Hong Kong,” they switched to Cantonese. After listening to their swift exchange and saying “¡Gracias!” to the owner, I marveled over the quad-lingual conversation. Just another day in the big city.
When I watched Un cuento chino six months later, I could see one of the punchlines coming: Roberto takes Ignacio Huang’s character, Jun, to Buenos Aires’ Chinatown and can’t understand why he’s unable to converse with one of the shop owners. Of course Jun speaks only Mandarin and the business owner only Cantonese. Eventually they find a teenage Chinese Argentine who translates for them while delivering food for his family’s restaurant, providing the film’s English title, Chinese Take-Away.