The kindness of Chinese strangers

June 6, 2010 at 10:34 PM 5 comments

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When you are young, your expectations about travel sound like a message in a Chinese fortune cookie: You will meet a handsome stranger. You will party ’til you drop. But all you have to do is arrive at your destination and that urge for the extraordinary yields without a peep to a desperate desire for the familiar. I for one am all too acquainted with the sinking feeling that comes from dealing with surly skycaps, bank tellers, gas station attendants, librarians, waiters and judges who don’t know you and assume your American passport is proof that you are philosophically fat, stupid and happy.

Chinese fortune cookieBut let’s face it: You could spend weeks anticipating the best way to deal with the people you’ll meet and the hassles you’ll overcome on the way to the best trip ever in your life — and once you arrive, you are as lost as a moth in a mitten.

I experienced this fantasy-meets-reality blow to my ego at twenty-two when I moved to St. Thomas for eighteen months, and my son is coping with it now in Shanghai. He left on Memorial Day to work for a clothing manufacturer who was willing to have him do some nebulously defined office work. The job came about as a result of a favor to a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing. We are all co-religionists and theoretically committed to helping each other out.

A week before his flight, Max still hadn’t found a place to live. “I’m really not worried,” he said, as if worry was a species of emotion reserved for timid maternal souls like mine. “If I can’t find an apartment, I’ll stay at a youth hostel.”

Like many other twenty-one-year-old gents of his station, my son mainlines his Mac. And despite the billions of bytes that have zapped his nervous system, not one had resulted in the name of a single hostel. My own cursory Google search for “youth hostels in Shanghai” results in about fifty possibilities with consumer ratings between 67 and 100 percent. My son, who has scouted out free Wii game systems and twenty-five dollar Target gift cards, never thought to search for a hostel as a Plan B.

How could you even think about going to a foreign country where you barely speak a word of the language, where you don’t exactly understand what your money can buy and where you have to arrive at a new job ready to “hit the ground running?”

You can think this way only by having a wonderful picture of the world that awaits you. This is a world where young ex-pat men and women text each other via cell phone to “C u at ming” or some other code known only to the initiated. It’s a world that promises peer interactions between people born to help you fulfill the happiness that is your due. This is a world whose young travelers spin golden tales out of narrative hay whose moral is always, “Ye (text language), it was hard at first, but it was really worth it in the end.”

Don’t sleep in the subways, darling

The apartment that his Chinese teacher helped him find turned out to be off-limits to foreigners. He hadn’t brought much cash with him because he and I both thought it was safer to get money from an ATM. But Max had trouble using the ATM machines until he figured out the difference in simplified Chinese between “credit’ and “debit.” In any case, he had taken off for Shanghai with about seven hundred dollars in his bank account, a sum that seemed sufficient when he was in Jilin province last summer because all of his living expenses had been paid up front.

So there he was in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language with too little money and no place to live. In China, where a foreigner has to inform the local police where he will be living and for how long, winging it wasn’t going to be an option.

Enter Tong.* Three years ago, Tong and I reported to the same manager at IBM Research. I stopped by Tong’s office to introduce myself. He was a computer scientist who had done database research at UCLA and worked at IBM for the next decade. Except for reverencing our manager, I was certain he and I would have nothing else in common.

I knew one Chinese person and one Chinese writer. Why wouldn’t at least one be aware of the other?

“I know this is a long shot,” I said, “but by any chance, are you familiar with the Chinese writer Eileen Chang?”

Tong said, “Ten years ago, when I was packing for my move to the U.S., I thought about which books I would take with me. I couldn’t take them all, but I decided to take every one of my Eileen Chang books.”

Only somebody who appreciates Chang’s dark view of marriage, love, family relationships, government, war and peace would say, “I have found a friend!”

Within a couple of months, our manager bolted for Google. Tong and I commiserated with each other. He suggested that we get together every Friday afternoon, as we had been doing, either for lunch or to take a walk. I can only speak for myself when I say that my Friday afternoon get-togethers with Tong turned out to be the high point of my week. They also turned out to be the high point of my IBM experience.

It took my discovery of a thirtysomething Chinese database specialist from Shanghai, the son of people whom the Cultural Revolution had exiled to the countryside for the first ten years of Tong’s life, to find a person who could talk knowledgeably about Eileen Chang, Anton Chekhov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mikhail Bulgakov and Jhumpa Lahiri. Within a couple of weeks, our conversations went beyond books. We talked soul to soul about our personal and work lives in a way that I had not been able to with most people I meet. In short order, I learned that Tong planned on returning to China. “After ten years in the U.S., I still feel as if I don’t belong here,” he said. I told him that after ten years in the U.S., he wouldn’t feel as if he belonged in China either. It was my way of saying that Tong was an individual, and individuals can find a home only in brief moments such as the ones he and I shared on Friday afternoons. I still believe that.

An unexpected conclusion

The master chess player who moves each of us around on the great cosmic board moved Tong to the Microsoft Research Lab in Beijing. In the eighteen months he has been back in China, we have kept in touch sporadically by e-mail. A couple of weeks ago, when Max confessed that he actually didn’t have a place to stay in Shanghai, I e-mailed Tong. I could barely disguise my panic.

Tong told me that Max was welcome to stay in an apartment that his parents owned but didn’t use in Shanghai. It was about an hour and a half away from Max’s workplace, but Max was welcome to use it as long as he needed it.

Moreover, Tong’s parents would send a driver to meet Max at the airport.

The day before Max went to Shanghai, we spent a couple of hours at a mall shopping for gifts. We got his parents a set of linen place mats and napkins. We got Tong and his wife Memoir From an Antproof Case by Mark Halprin and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. For their five-year-old daughter, we got a book by Shel Silverstein that Max said he wished he’d had when he was her age. For the driver, we got a hard-bound black notebook. The napkins and notebook were manufactured in China. The books were probably printed there too. We had the feeling we were bringing coals to Newcastle.

Tong e-mailed me that he was sending a translator to the airport too. The Chinese spoken in Shanghai is entirely different from the Chinese Max is studying in school, and Tong was worried that the driver wouldn’t understand Max.

When Max couldn’t get money out of the ATM and then couldn’t stay in the apartment off-limits to foreigners, the driver and translator drove Max around Shanghai for the better part of a day to help him find an apartment. They looked at four before Max finally found one near his workplace that was livable.

Tong’s parents were concerned about the ATM problems. They offered to lend Max $2,000 in cash. Tong wanted to lend Max $4,000.

By his second day, Max was able to get money out of the ATM and we didn’t need the loan. But still.

The world on its head

Max’s sojourn in Shanghai has not been the 24/7 lark that Max fantasized about. He knows some acquaintances — Facebook friends — who are either working at World Expo or are touring the city. Presumably, he has something in common with them, yet in his seven days in Shanghai, he has yet to meet up with them.

The Chabad House, which Max and I contacted, has been unresponsive. Max’s employer, who shares a culture and religion with us, never offered to help with living arrangements.

Tong never kept his Skype program on until this week. It is on all the time.

Throughout my son’s first chaotic week, Tong told me not to worry. Life was going to sort itself out. It has. It certainly has. But everything I thought I knew about friendship and group ties has been stood on its head. And I didn’t have to leave my home to find out.

*Name fictionalized for reasons of privacy.



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Entry filed under: China, college, Family, Friendship, Working. Tags: , , , , .

Hey, BP, take a page from Apple’s book The solace of trivia in tough times

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  June 7, 2010 at 7:18 AM

    No need for your son to worry when he’s got you in his corner!

  • 2. Will Runyon  |  June 7, 2010 at 7:24 AM

    So many lessons in this post. Adversity is a hard but good teacher. I will send you an-mail about M on the Bund’s Glamour Bar. I found it an ex-pat haven while living in Shanghai in 2006.

  • 3. Max  |  June 7, 2010 at 11:00 PM

    I for one, found this entry very interesting (Although I think “barely speak a word of the language” does not accurately describe my situation).

    • 4. modestine  |  June 7, 2010 at 11:04 PM

      You are in the unique position of being the subject of this blog post. Except for my misrepresenting your grasp of the Chinese language, do you recognize yourself here? I always fictionalize the names of people I write about, but I didn’t fictionalize yours. Were you OK with that? Somehow I can’t picture fictionalizing the name of my own son! (Thanks for reading this, Max.) — Mom

  • 5. Pesha  |  June 8, 2010 at 1:58 PM

    I think just about every traveler experiences the high of planning for the trip and then the OMG shock of actually being in a completely new place populated with only strange faces. It’s tough, and it’s miserable. And then there is a turning point, where you know where to buy the freshest fruit, and you exchange a few conversations with ppl who are becoming part of your circle, and as you turn the corner toward your apartment you have a flash that you are going home. And don’t forget that the young are citizens of their own border-less nation, and that the young traveler can tap into that in an instant. My fortune cookie says, “Your bumpy road will smooth out right quick.”


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