Sunday, May 04, 2008

Towards Strangers

A lot of people live their lives by Blanche Dubois's parting words
"Thankyou, whoever you are. I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

I myself put that into practise when I was in America almost three years ago. Back then, I wasn't in a position of power. Some people (albeit a minority) dealt with me in ways that lacked humility, grace and generosity, and I never once thought that I might become such a person.

Earlier this week, after arriving in Shenzhen bus-station, and being one of the few people there who knew where I was going and how to get there, I didn't want to be accosted or (even temporarily) impeded.

There are guys in most of these big stations who don't wear uniforms or carry ID but seek to assist members of the public by carrying their luggage and leading them to the bus they want to get to.

Just after arriving in Shenzhen I was approached by such a person who, before I passed him started saying "sir sir bus bus." I responded in Chinese "我不要坐车" (I don't want to take a bus) which isn't in the slightest bit impolite. But after this bear of a man persisted in his soft, effeminate voice I ended up saying the same thing louder and quickening my pace. When I turned around to look at him, he had a shocked look of hurt and rejection but I had to speed away to avoid the big crush.

A week before that, I had an experience that anybody of non-Asian appearance who's been to Mainland China will be familiar with. On my own, walking from somewhere to somewhere late at night, I walk past a group of young guys, I look at them, they look at me, and as we're about to pass each others' line of vision the "helloooo" comes, no less spine-tingling for its inevitability. Of course, I don't want to do the parrot thing and make the peanut-brain who said it look big in front of his friends so I turn my head away and walk past, he then starts to mutter about me so I, in a charged but not necessarily antagonistic mood stop, turn around and say "你是什么东西?" which translates as 'what thing are you'? but its connotations are much worse. His friends started laughing at him, but when nobody came forth to confront me I turned around and walked to the pub.

Although I don't know their names, and never expect to see either of my recent victims again, I have (I think) made up for both incidents in other ways. But still, there are more important things to be than a polite stranger.

PS. If you're wondering why having a stranger say 'hello' to you might be construed as mockery or psychological warfare then come to China, or other particular places in the far-East.

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