I could say it was a cold, snowy, wintry day, but that would not be accurate as it seldom snows in Beijing. It was cold and wintry, cold enough to go ice skating on the lake at the Summer Palace. The ice there was about fourteen inches thick. It was COLD.
I don’t remember my destination that day, but it entailed taking the bus to the subway. The busses were always a good place to warm up as they were very crowded with lots of folks leaning against one another. I counted six leaning on me on one such ride.
This day however, I was given a seat, which happened frequently, my being the only foreigner on the bus. People wanted to talk with me so often they would give me their seat. I felt very guilty when the person was much, much older than I, but because of my white hair, they thought I was old.
On this particular day, I had an aisle seat just behind the conductor who monitored the door toward the middle of the bus. An older woman with a small granddaughter had picked up the granddaughter and indicated I should take the seat while the girl sat in her lap.
She acknowledged me with a nod of her head and a greeting of nihao which I returned, it being one of the few Chinese words I knew. Almost at once she began chattering with me, thinking I understood what she said. I explained in sign that I did not speak the language. “Oh, too bad’” she indicated in sign. We smiled a lot at each other and I greeted her granddaughter.
I kept American pennies in my coat pockets so I could give them to children who would speak to me. A great way to make new friends, bribe them. I pulled out a penny and asked grandmother if it was OK for the girl to have one. She replied “Yes.” (in Chinese). The little girl was delighted and gave me a shy smile, leaning into her grandmother’s coat to peek at me.
Grandmother tried to communicate with me to see who I was. I kept business cards in my pocket as well. The nice thing about the cards my university gave me to use is they are English on one side and Chinese characters on the other. Grandmother now knew who I was and why I was in Beijing.
After sitting a few minutes in silence, I hear “Oh!” and grandmother is looking at my feet. I wear sandals year around. In Beijing, sandal season is June to September. Wearing sandals is a great icebreaker for conversations as strangers would come up to me in the street and point at my feet and ask if they were cold, often by using charades. Grandmother must have been perusing my attire when I wasn’t looking.
She grabs the sleeve of the conductor who is standing in his cubical at the door and pulls it for attention. She is jabbering a mile a minute and pointing out my feet to him. He looked on incredulously. In pantomime I indicated that my feet were not cold. Meanwhile they have alerted all the passengers who are nearby. I hold my foot up in the aisle so everyone can see my turquoise blue sandal.
Meanwhile the bus continues down the street. I am sitting quietly watching the scene when I think I feel a bug crawling up my pant leg. It is winter and cold and I am surprised there are bugs out and about. I reach down to dust it away and bump into grandmother’s hand. She is trying to raise my pant leg. She looks at me, though somewhat guiltily, and asks me to raise it. I smile and do so. She leans way over and looks up my pant leg to see my purple long winter underwear. She sits back in her seat with a very satisfied smile and gives me the thumbs up. I passed the test. I wasn’t as tough as she thought.
An interesting afterward: the next day I received an email, thanking me for my kindness to her mother and daughter. It seems that the grandmother had a big story to tell when “mom” got home from work. She produced the card for her daughter who felt she should write and tell me how much our time together had meant to her mother. Grandmother felt she had not been able to adequate express it to me and since her daughter spoke English would she please write and tell me.
Just one of the wonderful experiences while living in Beijing.