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The Kindness of Strangers

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My decision to visit China last year was based on what I’d learnt in my A-Level Geography classes. I read a few textbooks and watched the odd BBC documentary and gained an impression of China that I imagine many have. Some of what I read and the assumptions I made proved to be true, both the good and the bad. A piece of me may have been initially disappointed when I stepped off the plane and didn’t walk right into a scene from Mulan. And I won’t pretend that I’ve been accepting of everything that I’ve seen here, or that I’ve warmed to every Chinese person that I’ve met.

Nevertheless, I decided to come back to China this year based on what surprised me the most about the Middle Kingdom. While the ideas we have in the West about the Chinese may be true to an extent, what I’ve seen brings me to their defence every time. I wonder if it is purely because I’m foreign that I’ve been shown so many random acts of kindness but I’ve been treated by the Chinese, both in rural Yunnan and in cosmopolitan Shanghai, in a way that I’ve never seen people treat one another before.

People don’t stare or take photos in the (sometimes) claustrophobic way that they do in Yunnan, most people that serve you won’t bat an eyelid and can speak to you quite confidently in English. Occasionally someone on the metro will look at you inquisitively, or you get the impression that waitresses have a particular interest in your order (from the way that they totter off to discuss the event) but overall I’ve lived quite normally here. But what constantly reminds me that this is a unique country are the small things that people have done for me.

First, the genuine concern my Chinese colleagues show whenever I tell them I’ve been somewhere by myself may be annoying be to some, but to me really touching. “But how will you know what to do?” “How did you make communication?” they worriedly ask. I reassure them that if I go anywhere alone it’s usually somewhere that I’ve practised my Chinese before and somewhere that I feel confident. They never look convinced and I know they are waiting to hear some of my Chinese phrases. On my first day, I told a Chinese girl in the office that I was going to get a coffee. “I’ll come with you.” I explain to her that latte is a universal term, but she walks me there anyway. I have since passed the how clueless is this foreigner test, but my friend still likes to ask questions at me in Chinese until I give her a sufficient answer. If I answer in English, I’m soon taught what I said in Chinese. Perhaps I’ve never seen such concern before because every tourist I’ve ever met has been able to speak English, so I’ve never felt that worry towards someone trying to get around.

The next is that once someone has served you, they remember you. The third time I went into aforementioned Uncle Toast, a young boy came out from the counter and pointed to Peanut Butter Toast on the menu. I then saw him talking to his mum and as she pointed at me, he let out a sigh of despair. He trudged over to me with the milk tea he had just bought. I gather that he sais something along the lines of my mum told me to give this to you and I really can’t believe he did, for no other reason than the fact they know that English people like tea. In the pizza place, I decided not to bother the waitress once again with the pantomime of asking for olives on my pizza. But after taking my order she runs back over, points to the word olive and asks if I would like some. The next time I go in a waitress I hadn’t seen before serves us so I definitely don’t bother her with extra toppings. The chef pokes his head out the door after a few minutes and sure enough, my pizza arrives with olives.

Lastly, when it rains here, it’s almost monsoonal. I’ve never seen such swollen raindrops. The traffic is worse than ever when the rain is bad and taxis hurtle past whatever colour the lights are, so there isn’t much chance of crossing the road. A canopy of umbrellas formed around me and I made a mental note to barter with the nearest street vendor for one of my own later. My bad mood was made worse by a girl standing ridiculously close to me, but then the rain seems to stop falling and a purple hue hangs over me and I realise the girl is actually holding her umbrella over me. I’m so surprised by her kindness that I keep looking up to see if she means to hold the umbrella over my head, but as the lights change and I step out into the road she walks with me shoulder to shoulder. She askes me where I’m going and I point towards my office and she apologises that she works in the other direction. The street where I work is very busy and crowds of people pour out of the metro, I really couldn’t believe a stranger had seen me without an umbrella and made the effort to walk to where I was standing.

It’s these things that I think are most important about China and taught me the most about the country. So sometimes an older member of the public will physically lean against you on the metro as if you yourself are the door-frame or will constantly tap at you or stand on your foot until you move. But then a teenager will grab hold of your bag and pull you into the carriage if it looks like your arm is about to get crushed in the door. A businessman will give up his seat for you, insisting that you take it even if the next stop is yours. China seems to have no time for being awkward or embarrassed, if there is something they can do for you, in my experience, they will do it.

Posted by emilyferris 00:32 Archived in China

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