Biting off more than I can chew and chewing it anyway

This weekend I went on an adventure with the bao’an (security guard) from my school. (My astute readers will remember I live in a district of Shenzhen called Bao’an. It means keeper of the peace.) His name is Wei Jinchuan (I’m giving you this in the Chinese name order) and he has been the most consistently friendly and encouraging presence since I arrived at my school. He always greets me with a smile and a friendly phrase, happy to exchange zao shang haos in the morning. We planned an outing to the park (I assumed our local park in Fuyong) a week or so in advance, with the mutual understanding that I am nursing a broken toe. “No problem”, the WeChat translation said, “we will take a car to the park”. Ok.

When the day came, I told him I had to go to the hospital in the morning for a follow up x-ray and would meet him at the school afterward. I met him at 11:30 and he walked to the gates of the kindergarten from across the street. He looked even thinner without his bao’an uniform on, an aged looking man my fellow foreign teacher and I both agree looks to be about in his sixties. I used one of the most traditional Chinese greetings, “have you eaten?”, and he said he already ate. I hadn’t, and was quite hungry. “What do you want to eat?”, he asked in his thickly Cantonese-inflected accent. I struggled to understand the very basic sentence that would have been no problem with any other speaker. I knew I was in for a long day. I told him I still hadn’t had fried noodles, chowmian (totally unrecognizable from the chow mein in the western world), and told him I wanted to try it.

“You want fried noodles?”

“Yes.”

We started walking. He quickly pointed to a ramen (pronounced la-mein) restaurant and suggested ramen. Wanting to be agreeable, and quite hungry, I said sure. He treated me to a bowl of hot ramen with two small pieces of beef and a big pile of noodles floating in boiling hot chicken stock spiced heavily with Szechuan peppercorn, the kind that doesn’t register as spicy but makes your mouth numb. He pulled a bowl of whole garlic cloves still in their paper skins on the table over to me and suggested I add one. I waved a solid no, not interested in chewing on an entire clove of raw garlic at the moment, but thanks.

We left the restaurant and started walking down the street. I had just come from the hospital where the doctor that’s been following me, Dr. Ouyang, had told me “don’t walk to much”. I lifted my toes up in my sandals so as not to roll through the broken toe with each step, but I knew I need to switch to bike soon or I would be at risk of delaying my healing. We passed a few share bikes, and, not knowing how to explain myself, wondering if he didn’t understand my situation after all, I texted his phone. Hey, I need to ride a bike. His reply: the park is over an hour away by bus, we can’t bike there. I considered telling him I just wanted to bike to the bus stop, but the nuances of communication via machine-translation across sub-dialects were already getting fuzzy, so I accepted my fate for now.

He added that the bus stop is just up the street, not far. Ok, I said. We walked, a lot longer than I wanted to, and finally arrived at the bus stop. My WeChat travel QR codes are not fully operational. While I can access some features in China, some features require a Chinese ID number, which I don’t have. The subway is fine for me to use, but the bus code won’t load. As our bus arrived, I got on, thinking I might end up getting kicked off anyway, but I might as well see what happens with a local at my side.

When you get on a bus in China (at least in Shenzhen), there’s no obvious way to interact with it or pay. I looked for a pay station near the driver’s seat, or QR codes to scan on the walls, but there was nothing. Instead, you just sit down, and a worker comes over to you and scans your phone. My bao’an friend (I know his name but I don’t know how to properly address him, so I will continue to use his title) tried to scan his code for two people, but this wasn’t allowed, and mine came up with a red exclamation point. I looked at the bus attendant, not sure what to do. Qian, she said, cash. Phew. Luckily I have a little emergency cash on me always, and I was able to pay. It was 3 kwai, or 47 cents USD.

We rode the hour long bus up to what I came to find out was Guanming, the district I would have been living in had I accepted a previous job offer to teach middle school with a different company. I sometimes think about this other life I could have had, and getting to visit Guanming felt nothing short of serendipitous.

While on the bus we chatted on our phones with each other. I asked him how China has changed in his lifetime, and he replied “that is too much to say”. He told me how when he was five years old he lived in a thatched roof hut in a village with no roads, herding cattle and going to school barefoot in mud up to his shins, even in the winter. He had no shoes until the second grade. “Kids these days”, he said “are starving for the food in the palm of their hands.” In the same breath he said his life could be a novel and that everyone in his generation shares the same story.

Like many others, he came to Shenzhen to earn money for his family back home in Guanxing. He has a wife and two adult children, as well as a large extended family on his orange orchard. He’s saving up to buy a plot of land by working at the kindergarten. I also came to find out that despite looking to be in his late sixties, he is only forty seven. Not so old after all, just weathered by hard living. Though he is old enough to hand write characters into his phone rather than using pinyin, which he claims is for young people. The line between handwriting and pinyin (a romanized alphabet system for Chinese characters) is a deep line in the sand between generations in China, with one side half a step closer to English literacy and world knowledge (outside of China’s censorship) and the other side forever behind that veil.

We finally got off the bus, only to walk a few blocks to a subway station and proceed to get on the subway. At this point a feeling of warning started to temper my sense of adventure. We are really far away from home, and I have no idea where we are going. We ride the subway. He asks me questions. Am I married? Why not? Do I not like men? He guesses my age to be 25, and is surprised when I tell him I am in fact 33. He tells me in China people my age are married with kids. I smile, and move the conversation along.

When we get off the subway we go to another bus stop. I am alarmed, but still game for the adventure. “Are we taking a bus now?” “No”, he says “Didi”. After a time, our car pulls up and we get in. We ride a ways and then he and the Didi driver have a conversation which I can tell goes something like this: “Didis can’t go any further”, “Ok, we will get out here”. We get out.

We walk a few blocks, my toes picked up and my heart aching for my shattered expectations of a bike ride. We come across a square, and he asks if I want to eat now or play now. The word wan, or play, is used in Chinese for hanging out as adults as well as playing as kids. Same word, two different meanings. This threw me for a real loop as I tried to parse people talked to me about “playing at my house” and wanting to “play with me”, especially in a hookup-culture context.

I had just eaten. I told him I wasn’t hungry, so we went on ahead. He got a phone call and talked for a bit, then hung up. He told me when he was tired of playing his friend would give him the key and he would go back and cook dinner. I interpreted this to mean that we would go back to Fuyong and he would cook dinner where he lives (he, like the other bao’an, lives on campus in a dormitory).

My tolerance for walking on a broken toe was about at its limit. I finally stopped him and said I really need to get a bike. Luckily we found a share bike pretty easily, and I hopped on. I asked him if he wanted to get one as well. He tried to scan one and, for a reason not even he knew, it didn’t work. I marveled at witnessing the first time something in China’s seamless automated system didn’t work for a Chinese person. So, he walked, and I biked slow next to him.

From the other direction comes a man on his bike. The bao’an lets out a yell and crosses through the bushes to the other bike lane, stops the man, points at me, takes the bag out of his bike basket, the man gets off his bike, and he gets on it. My jaw actually dropped. Did he just rob this man’s bike? Why did that man give him his bike? Are Chinese people really this collectivist? Is this cultural? So many questions, so little ability to ask them cogently.

We biked a few more blocks and suddenly (everything that happened this day was sudden, to me, on my metaphorically blindfolded journey) he stopped, and threw his bike over a barrier onto the grass. He motioned for me to do the same. In for a penny, in for a herniated disc, I strained to lift the heavy share bike over the barrier. He reached down and picked it up, helping me hoist it. We biked across the grass to the curb, where he proceeded to take me across six lanes of highway, finally, to the park’s entrance. When we got across, the park’s bao’an gave him a good talking to, but he just pointed at me and the bao’an nodded and waved us on. Was it broken toe privilege? Was it foreigner privilege? The world may never know.

We parked our bikes in the park and walked in. I later found out that no bikes are allowed in the park. The scene was absolutely stunning. A ribbon of paved path winding through forested hills as far as the eye could see, serving Great Wall vibes all day long. We walked, and walked, and walked. The cognitive dissonance of knowing I shouldn’t be walking and doing it anyway was grating as to be internally deafening. He stopped me and took my photo a few times, had me take his, and took a few selfies together with me.

We had reached my language limit hours ago, and we walked mostly in silence. At one point he pointed at a flowering bush and said “look, a beautiful flower”, and I stared at him blankly, registering the meaning only after we passed it again on the way back, at which point I tried to say the same thing back to him and was not understood. The word for flower is hua. Hua piao liang. Beautiful flower. I texted it to him, hoping he’d understand that I finally understood what he meant to tell me before. I felt defeated, ashamed, embarrassed, and awkward. Most of all I felt spent. I wanted to go home.

I finally asked him to go back. I knew he would be disappointed, we hadn’t gotten very far into the hike, but I did ask him to ride bikes and not walk, and my watch was registering about eight thousand steps already for the day. My whole foot and ankle was sore and stiff from walking with my toes held up to spare the broken bone, and my knee felt twisted and irritated. I thought about the boy who herded cattle in mud and decided not to expound on this, but simply asked I asked if we could just take bikes all the way back to the subway station, and he said yes.

Halfway through the ride, he stopped and told me to wait so he could take the bike home. I sat, knowing better than to sit on a curb in China where men spit constantly but not caring, and waited while my mind spun new stories about the bike and the man he had taken it from. Had they made an arrangement? Their conversation was so short, how could they have exchanged address details? Finally he returned with a bottle of water for me and we proceeded, him walking, me biking alongside, on a long trek to the subway. We passed through a shopping district neighborhood in Guanming with a stream running through the middle, families out and about and kids riding bikes in the street. Life in China on weekends always fills my heart with joy, seeing the day-to-day of people’s lives that comes from living in a place rather than passing through.

Back to the subway, then the bus. On the bus I asked him why that man gave him his bike. He explained that he knew that man, and that he was going to cook me a farmer’s country dinner at his house. I was shocked. I realized this is what he meant by telling me about the key, the friend, cooking dinner, asking if I wanted to eat or play first. I felt like such a jerk, ashamed of my unaware selfishness in that moment. I apologized, saying I would have liked that and I had no idea, I didn’t understand. He said if I have the chance to do it again, we could try again. I told him I’d have to wait until my foot heals, but yes. Definitely. Hopefully by then my language skills will have improved somewhat as well.

When the bus finally got back, he said I could wait and he could get my moped for me. I appreciated the sentiment but I felt stifled by his presence and just wanted to be on my own. I explained via text that I am stubborn and independent and don’t like too much help. The bus finally stopped. It was dark. We got out and stood at the intersection. I took my mask off and folded it and put it in my pocket. He took his off and threw it on the ground. I had less than one percent battery in my brain to process my own indignation at this, so I just wrote it off as Just China Things and turned my attention to the crossing sign. It finally turned green. I walked across the street, found a share bike, wished him a good evening, and was off.

I cannot adequately describe the sweet rush of relief when I pedaled away him. In retrospect I am a bit guilty for feeling this way, because I know he wants to help me and he’s being very nice, but after seven awkward hours I was drained. As I biked down a street whose name I don’t know in China English words escaped me, over and over, “I’m free. I’m free. I’m finally free. I’m free. I’m free.” I repeated it over and over to myself, saying it and knowing it as I was saying it and hearing it and knowing it more as I was hearing it, applying the words like a lotion to a burn, soothing, calming, my skin drinking it in.

I spent the rest of the evening in a dull stupor, spent in every way, while my foreign teacher buddy texted me pictures of a hike he did in Guanzhou. “I feel so rejuvenated”, he said, “I’m glowing”. I turned the screen off on my phone.

So, I overdosed on China, but I consider it an inoculation. I certainly had some side effects, but my immune response will be ever stronger for my next exposure. Which is, what do you know, right around the corner.

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Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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Anna Ka

Anna Ka

Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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