Moving to a small town in China where I was the sole foreigner wasn’t all about being a celebrity , it was also about that incredibly alluring thing all travelers encounter on the road: the kindness of strangers.
The small town version of the kindness of strangers were numerous sweet little things the local people were always doing for me. For example, this one time I was halfway through baking a cake when I realized I’d run out of sugar. It was past 10pm so I knew the supermarket would be closed but maybe the little shops along the road would be open so I dashed down to try. Five minutes later I entered the first one but nothing looked like sugar so I moved on to the next shop and then the next one, all to no avail. I couldn’t find it on the shelves, I didn’t know the word in mandarin and I had no idea on how to mime sugar to people that never add sugar to their tea.
By the time I entered the third – or was it the fourth shop? – all the shop clerks in the street where talking about me. I was in the last shop, about to give up, when the clerk made me follow her around the tiny shop while she showed me everything on the shelves and not satisfied when I kept shaking my head she took me next to the counter and started opening these big plastic drums she had lined up there. And lo and behold one of them had sugar! I don’t know who was happier, me, her, or all the other clerks in the shops nearby with whom this clerk was quickly sharing her success story!
Another similar instance was the first time I went alone to the noodle restaurant near my house and after a minute of trying to tell the lady what type of noodles I wanted she just invited me into into the tiny kitchen where she had all the noodles laid out on a counter and I could just point at the ones I wanted! This, by the way, became our routine whenever I went there.
On another occasion when my friend couldn’t go with me to the train station to purchase the tickets I would be needing for my coming holidays (at peak holiday times train tickets in China run out very quickly so you need to buy them long in advance) her boyfriend’s brother, who had only just met me, offered to go with me to the following day so I wouldn’t have to go alone and mime the whole transaction.
Sweet little stories like the ones above happened frequently enough that I’ll admit to not appreciating them fully until I had left China and moved to Spain where although I was still a foreigner I don’t recall a single time when someone went out of their way to help me. Thats not to say Spanish people aren’t friendly and welcoming, its just that Chinese people went above and beyond to make me, a foreigner living in China, feel welcome.
Having said that, there was one instance in China that I truly appreciated the moment it happened. A day or two after I had arrived in Lueyang – my Chinese hometown for a year- I went to one of the local mobile companies to buy a sim card. I’d planned ahead and asked one of the teachers at the school to go with me so she could translate and all was going well until the lady in the counter started filling in the application form. The computer system wouldn’t take my passport number as valid and she couldn’t issue a new sim card without registering it first. And then a complete stranger saved the day.
Basically, another client in the shop who had been overhearing our conversation approached us and offered to have us use his ID card to register the sim card! I was reluctant to do so, sure there had to be a catch. Nobody in their right mind offers a complete stranger to use their ID card to register something. For all he knew I could be a criminal and use the card to make calls and post things online agains the Chinese government that would then be traced back to him. But he insisted and explained that he had lived abroad in Fiji for 2 years and knew how hard it could be to get things done in a foreign country. Everybody else at the shop was ok with the idea of using his ID number so in the end I went with it. I got the card and used it for a year with no problems. I never saw him again. Wish I had so I could have thanked him once more.
To this day I find this particular incredulous episode one of the best examples of the kindness of strangers in the world.