China Travel Diary: Getting by with the kindness of strangers

By Jacob Jarvis

In the last week I’ve visited Leshan, Jiuzhaigo and Kunming, and at every place, at some point, I’ve felt completely helpless and unable to communicated. Luckily, every time someone has come to help me. This, I believe, is one major aspect of Chinese culture which the West could take on – the openness to communicate with strangers.

In Leshan, after visiting the Grand Buddha, I was at a loss in finding the train station. My friend Steve and I jumped on the nearest bus, and hoped that we’d reach our destination. It didn’t seem like we would, no matter how much faith we had. A voice next to us then asked, “Where are you from?” It happened to be a Chinese student, currently training to be a translator, who spoke English perhaps better than I do myself.

Sensing our helplessness, she took us to the station, spoke to the ticket officer for us, and we thankfully got on the last bus back to Chengdu. I’m not a believer in fate, but that situation might just have changed my perspective. And it’s made up my mind that if I ever see anybody looking lost when I’m back home, I’ll make sure I help. So I guess I’m a karma convert too.

Just a week before, we were similarly aided when attempting to navigate our way to the Badaling section of The Great Wall. While lost in an endlessly confusing bus depot, we overheard a family, speaking in Mandarin, say the word Badaling. At this we took our opportunity to look over inquisitively, perform a few unintelligible hand signals and repeatedly say Badaling. With no need for a common language, we were soon adopted into the family, and guided along to where we needed to be by the smiling and waving young father, who was leading his wife and daughter.

In China, it seems that any native person who knows English is desperate to use it. A fellow traveller who was born in Shanghai explained to me how although English is taught in school to everyone, most rarely are able to speak to anyone in anything but Mandarin. So this has worked massively in our favour as well – whenever we’re stood staring at a map, attempting to navigate public transport, or generally meandering in the hope for a sign, people often come over and attempt to help. Plenty of times, I don’t know what we’d have done without them. This helping attitude, shared by many people in China, has made me want to become a more approachable person, and to make the effort to approach others more often as well.

So, next time you spot someone looking a little confused at a tube station, or waiting for a bus, train or tram, there’s no harming in saying a quick hello – you might need someone to do the same for you some time.

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