“Let’s meet on Sunday because the foreigners don’t work then,” Daniel Song suggested when The Tico Times asked for an interview.
By “foreigners,” Song, 24, is referring to the Costa Ricans he usually deals with on a daily basis. He is the principal translator for the new National Stadium project – being funded and built by the Chinese government – taking place day and night in Parque La Sabana, at the western end of San José.
Song grew up in Weihai, China and had his first taste of foreign travel after he took Spanish classes in his second year of college. After only three months of lessons, he jetted off to Spain for six months of Spanish immersion and instruction.
“The first two months there were terrible. It was so hard and so difficult to understand what was going on,” said Song, “but arriving here in Costa Rica was even more intimidating.”
He returned to China afterwards to finish his degree and then worked as a translator in Shanghai for three months. Song found his current position with the Chinese contractor building the stadium advertised on the Internet and jumped at the opportunity to travel again.
“I chose this country because of the new relationship between Costa Rica and China,” he said. “It was an opportunity to be part of something different.”
Song arrived with the first group of stadium workers near the end of November 2009 and was the project’s only translator for the project’s original 200 workers for the first three months, an unexpected challenge.
“First of all, I was under the impression there would be more (translators), which there are now,” said Song. “But for the first three months I was the only one, and responsible for helping over 200 workers adapt and get around, while also dealing with the foreigners.”
He is currently in charge of working with the press and constant visitors to the site, as well as facilitating purchases from local companies for construction materials not brought from China, such as sand, cement and gravel.
“Negotiations with (Tico) companies are not nearly as difficult as some negotiations with my fellow workers,” said Song. “The hardest part is trying to convince the Chinese workers to try the concepts suggested by the foreigners (Ticos).”
Song was also hoping for a little more real life contact with the Costa Rican world. Aside from the locals he deals with in his job, he has little contact with “real” Ticos or their lifestyle.
“I’m contained in my tiny Chinese world,” said Song. “I live with Chinese people, eat Chinese food and speak Chinese. I’d love the chance to actually be more immersed in the culture.”
All the Chinese workers are likely to be found in one of two places: Parque La Sabana where construction is taking place, or their living quarters in the Don Bosco neighborhood to the east. A few have taken advantage of their days off to explore a little of Costa Rica.
Song has been in Costa Rica six months but has only seen a few tourist destinations. He visited the Caribbean city Limón, Arenal Volcano and even Poás Volcano four days before January’s magnitude 6.2 earthquake.
When the workers do venture outside their comfort zone, they turn to Song for basic language assistance. He put together lists of common Spanish words such as “hola,” “gracias” and taxi directions, as well as essential work terms such as “cemento,” “piedra” and “arena,” with the Chinese pronunciation placed beside each of them.
“Some of them have learned those basics pretty well,” said Song, “but really, other than that, why would they need to speak Spanish?”
Most of the workers have a two-year work permit and will head back home immediately after completion of the stadium, but Song is hoping to stay a while. His college major was Business & English, which, combined with a minor in Spanish, makes him well-suited for work here as economic relations between Costa Rica and his native country develop.
“I would love to live here afterwards and really understand the culture,” said Song. “I could utilize both my degrees and maybe represent a Costa Rican company in their relations with China.”