Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Accolades to the Chinese People

Though generalizations can be dangerous, peoples of different countries develop reputations for a reason. This is true even for large countries like Japan and France, but the people of really huge countries, like the USA and China, defy universal description.

My fascination with these two countries is linked with the range of attitudes, beliefs and cultures you meet in either place, though the specifics obviously vary.

In China, I met people of all kinds: brusque and friendly, rude and polite, busy and patient, nasty and sweet. Though the crowds were bothersome, and the pace and jostling anywhere there was a line got downright uncomfortable, sooner or later somebody would walk up to me and offer assistance. This happened so consistently to me that I developed an affection, which, though the samaritans were obviously a small minority, I tend to bestow on the Chinese people as a whole.

A good example was when I got off an inter-city bus in Chengdu, trying to get back to my hostel. I ended up at a different transit station than the one I left from. I had no idea where I was. This transit station was informal, with a line of bus stops down a main road, no central office or billboards to get information from. I got a fresh bite of pineapple from a street vendor, which I needed after the ride inside the hot, poorly ventilated bus, then looked around to see about taxis.

It was thick with people, spilling into the streets and not really thinning out anywhere within sight, so I hesitated a bit, wanting to determine the best direction to get away so that I had a chance of getting a cab. Then a car pulled up, and the driver, a bit chubby, got out and started talking to me in Mandarin, with his passenger yelling unintelligbly from the car. Since I could not understand him, he called out to others and soon a young, adult but tiny student appeared, acting as interpreter. They asked me where I was going, so I pulled out a map and showed the location of the hostel.

I tend to take map-reading for granted, but though this particular city map was in Mandarin, it took some discussion among the Chinese, in the group that had gathered around, to figure out where I was going. The driver then, through the tiny interpreter, offered to take me for fifty yuan. I immediately said no, since I knew I was close and a taxi ride should have been about half of that. I also would have hesitated to get in an unmarked car with two strangers, but since I generally felt safe throughout China, this was only my second thought.

The conversation went back and forth for a while, with more people joining us. The student politely and diffidently translated questions for the others, without responding to me, possibly because his English was poor. Several times, the group broke out in laughter. I had noticed before that the Chinese find a curious mirth in the presence of foreigners. Often when I walked into a store or restaurant, the clerk or waiter would suppress a giggle. Not in an offensive way, as I could tell. They just found it funny that they were serving a tourist.

A girl appeared and the driver said something to her, and then she asked me what I needed. I had to tell her a couple of times, though her English seemed a little better than that of the small guy. Once she understood that I wanted a cab, she told me she could help me and gently dragged me off by the arm.

The girl and her tall boyfriend, a guy I only noticed then, got me away from the crowds. I cannot describe how kind they were. They exhausted their vocabulary to try to talk with me, about where I was from and what I was doing in China. They refused to accept a ride, though I thought that was the least I could do and all three of us could easily fit in a cab. They were not going to leave me or let me go until they had gotten me a cab.

We eventually found a clear spot with little competition, so that soon a taxi stopped for us. The boyfriend negotiated with the driver, his whole lanky body leaning through the window, to make sure I would not get cheated. We said our heartfelt goodbyes and I was off.

This post is in honor of all those kind Chinese people, including some special friends I met, who helped make my time in China so extra-special.

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