Ask any expatriate about the highs and lows of living in China, and there will always be a story starting: 'I had this really amazing experience...' It happens to us all, and while some experience are more amazing than others, they are usually associated with communication, or more to the point--mis-communication.
My story last week involved getting lost in Beijing as an early arrival from Australia, struggling with the language. But what happens when the locals try to trade words with an English-speaking foreigner? For me, two experiences are indelibly printed in my mind. They reveal the courage of two native Beijingers, one with a very limited English vocabulary, the other with virtually none at all. But this second person found a way to break the language barrier in a spectacular fashion. And later he invited me to become part of his family.
Still struggling with only a few words of Chinese, I continue soaking up its sounds on public transport. This mobile stage provides a daily dose of contemporary "Peking Opera" starring the driver and conductor supported by a huge cast of extras - the always changing passengers.
My bus and subway travel between the Friendship Hotel and China Radio International (CRI) where I first worked in Beijing became much easier. On the homeward stretch one afternoon, I boarded a packed bus at Muxidi, and luckily found a seat at the rear. The "opera" was about to begin. It would feature a young man seated next to me, silent at first, but no doubt mentally working out his opening lines. The curtain was about to rise. His time to "perform" had arrived.
Taking his "cue," the man looked at me and started talking in very slow English. He wanted to know what I was doing in China, and why I travelled on the bus instead of using a taxi. Taking my own cue, I explained my desire to absorb the human Chinese sights and sounds. "But," he responded, choosing his words carefully. "We... want... speak English."
"Where do you work?" I asked. I couldn't understand his reply, but then he repeated it, more slowly: "I work... All China Federation...Trade Unions." Just as I was about to enquire about his job there, he went on: "Our building... come down... big explosion."
"I'm sorry," I replied, "that's very bad." But he smiled and said: "Oh, it... not bad because we... going to have new building." Next morning I was to see a photo in China Daily showing the famous Beijing landmark (built in the 1950s) being demolished to make way for a new 25-storey building on the same site.
His courage to speak to me in English was impressive. Knowing how difficult it must have been, I prompted him and he persevered throughout the 30-minute ride. But something even more remarkable followed after we got off the bus together. He extended his hand and said with new confidence: "I wish you good health and a happy stay in China."
I was "bowled over" (as we say Down Under) by his "performance." But it wasn't stage-managed. His "acting" came from the heart. A strong handshake offered my genuine applause.
Another stunning performance awaited me. This time, the English vocabulary of the "actor" would be almost nil.