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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Chinese guardian angel

Every once in a while something happens when we as human beings have a special connection. These moments can traverse cultures and languages and remind us that we all live in a small world and share common experiences and feelings. Recently I had such a special moment and it happened unexpectedly in a taxi cab in Beijing.

My Chinese guardian angel came in the form of a Beijing taxi driver.

Three weeks ago I traveled up to Beijing for a conference and booked a room in a hotel that was tucked way back in a hutong, a narrow alleyway that one can commonly find in Beijing and witness a little of the old world. Little restaurants and street vendors set up shop and customers can enjoy their meal in outdoor seating right there in the alleyway. A community school as well as an old manor with red hanging lanterns and from a time past were also tucked back in my hutong. Hutongs are gradually disappearing as new construction and roads are built in the name of progress. For this reason I wanted the experience of staying in a hutong while I was in Beijing. Problem was, there are still quite a few hutongs all over the massive city of Beijing and most are not marked on regular maps nor accessible by cars. Finding the entrance to any given hutong requires a familiarity with landmarks and shops on the main street where the entrance of a hutong is located. Even the most experienced taxi driver likely may not know exactly where a certain hutong is located let alone understand a foreigner with broken Chinese who also is quite unfamiliar with Beijing. This was the very situation I found myself in when I grabbed a taxi one evening after visiting the Donghuamen night market in Wangfujing near Tianamen Square and wanted to head back to my hutong hotel.

A Beijing hutong
When I initially jumped into the taxi, the driver seemed reluctant to take me. I’d heard stories of many taxi drivers wary of taking foreigners in China because of communication complications. I was determined to get this cab though and showed the name of the location that my friend Felix had penned out for me in Chinese on a scrap of paper. Unfortunately, Felix’s directions didn’t seem to suffice so I told the driver to take me to the nearest subway station, Andingmen. I wanted to make clear to the driver that I would direct him to the hutong from Andingmen but I think the driver thought I just wanted him to drop me off at the subway station and then I would walk. He bellowed out something along the lines of, “I’m not taking you to Andingmen!” and then I argued back and said, “It’s not far. Zou ba!! Go! Go!!! Drive!”

My driver grumbled but took off. I held in my hand my cel phone and tried calling the hotel so that someone there could explain to the driver where he could take me. He said gruffly, “Call the hotel!” It rang and rang. Finally someone picked up on the other end and I handed my cel phone to my driver. A short and terse conversation went on between my driver and the person on the other end of the phone at the hotel. I noticed my driver getting more and more irate and the only part I could understand him emphatically saying was, “She’s alone! She’s alone! I’m not going to drop her off at Andingmen station! She’s alone!” Frustrated, he thrust the phone back in my hand and said something to the effect, “They don’t know anything and are of no help!”

It was then that it dawned on me how thoughtful this man was. As a woman by herself in a strange city, he couldn’t in good conscience just drop me off at the subway station and let me wander and find my way on my own to the hotel. He sincerely was concerned about my safety and wellbeing. I turned to him in my broken Chinese and said, “You are a good person. You don’t want me walking by myself, do you?” He then gave me a look as if to say, “Not on my watch”.

Luckily at that moment, I recognized where we were and saw the shop that was right next to the entrance of the hutong. I called out, “That’s it! That’s it! I know where we are.We’re here!”

With relief my driver pulled over and took a deep sigh. I said, “It’s ok. We found it.” I then turned to him and said, “You’re a father,aren’t you?” At that moment he nodded his head and then gave me a knowing look and I saw in his eyes my own mother saying, “A parent never stops worrying about her or his child, no matter how old she is.” He held up his fingers and made the Chinese sign with his fingers for two and then six. “My daughter is 26.” I smiled at him and told him that I was only a little bit older than his daughter. I thanked him for his kindness and smiled to him for looking after me.

I won’t forget that man and his random act of kindness. No sooner did I get back to my hotel that I phoned my own mother to share the goodwill of the Chinese guardian angel who briefly looked after her daughter.

1 comment:

  1. I love this story. I could imagine the whole situation from the way you described it. Thanks for sharing, Steph. This is like a scene straight from a movie!!!

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