One of the best things since our move to China three years ago has been the helpful people. When we first arrived in Shanghai, we could barely string together two words of Mandarin. But people often went out of their way to give us directions or help us find things in the market.
This was really important after we first set foot in the country, suffering from severe jet lag and exhaustion from wrapping things up at home, and staying in our hotel room for nearly two days dozing and surviving on chocolate bars. We were glad to find an eatery that was welcoming to two desperately hungry and displaced lao wai.
With help, however, we began to adjust to our newly adopted home. One day, a fellow bus passenger saw I had out my Mandarin flash cards and came over to help with pronunciation.
The people who have given us difficulties have been a tiny minority hardly worth mentioning.
Some folks we became closer to, such as neighborhood grocer Sun Wei and Mr Zhang, a first-floor neighbor whom I dubbed “the world’s best Chinese neighbor”. I became a language “study partner” of a young engineer, but kept having coffee with him on Sundays more out of friendship than grammar.
While treating guests well is a celebrated characteristic of Chinese culture, it has the side-effect of burnishing China’s image, in a credible people-to-people way. I’ve told hundreds of friends back home what a good impression I’ve had of China. I’ve also wondered, with no small amount of chagrin, whether Chinese visiting my hometown would be treated as well.
Before moving to Beijing about a year ago, Shanghai folks warned us to expect a different reception in the “North Capital”. But we’ve found that most people are nice here, too. Some have been true gems and are folks we plan to stay in touch with.
So it was with delight that I could return the favor during a recent trip home. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, announcements aren’t repeated in Chinese as they are in English at major Chinese airports. I spoke up when a Chinese traveler was having trouble finding the correct stop on the airport’s train loop.
Later, when the gate changed for our connecting flight to Ohio, my wife suggested a confused group of Chinese visitors follow her to the new gate.
We got to chatting with them using our broken Mandarin, and they smiled when I showed them my language textbook. They seemed to be happy to see friendly natives who also could manage a few words in their language. We could totally relate.
It turns out that they were there to visit a young relative studying in Columbus. At the baggage carousel, I could see them happily talking to her and pointing to us, their new American friends. I wished them well as they left.
The encounter was brief, but it made us feel that in some small way we had paid forward the courtesy we had received.
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(China Daily 04/13/2015 page2)