Ignorant Laowai: Nicest thing a Chinese ever did for me

I know it’s a boring topic, but I’d really like to talk about the kindness I’ve rec’d from Chinese.  

One in particular.   In this current age, unfortunately most Chinese truly do NOT come across the best and brightest of us laowai.   Many of them are sick of us.  In sum, I’d have to wonder if another poor fellow had put himself in the same situation, as to whether he’d find the same happy result that I did.

Yes, I’ve spoken about China ad nauseum, and how it was 20+ years ago.  The deferential treatment I rec’d as a laowai, when buying a ticket on a train, or simply wanting to go to a KFC in Shanghai. (me and my gf, future wife went to the first KFC in Shanghai in 1991, and with a line at least 50 yards long, I was escorted to the front.   No one complained.  It was as if the Chinese in line wouldn’t expect anything less. )

Today, China is flooded with us laowai, more so than I had originally expected.   I shouldn’t be surprised.  Really, I shouldn’t.   China is a big place.  It only makes sense I guess.   Still, the constant drumbeat of negativity I hear and read about it is deafening.   While much of it is accurate, taken at face value, one would think the Chinese are a Neanderthal race.   Of course that’s not the case.  Yet the threads quite often dominate with such topics.

It’s hard to maintain perspective when one hears so much negativity.  Quite frankly, the internet is dominated by the negative.  This is a positive story I have.   It’s been in me for over a year, and it’s time to come out:

In the winter of 90-91, some of the best advice I received in China, in terms of how to learn the language properly, was to travel in China alone.   I forget who gave me this advice, ie either a Westerner or a Chinese teacher.  But I heard it often, and I took it to heart.   Having saved up my money from part time teaching(an est 700 rmb, if I recall), off I went.

My travels were to take me the popular tourist route, ie from Guangzhou, to Guilin, Yangshuo and then on to Kunming.  All by train, and bus. 

When I made it to Guilin, I hitched a ride to Yangshuo, and had the time of my life.  I remember it was Feb 1991, because I was in Yangshuo when the first Desert War started.    I think every laowai in Yangshuo was a student just like me.  It was a great time.   As a sign of economic progress in China today, of course, I seriously doubt I would come across so many students concentrated in such tight quarters ever again.  Today it would be businessmen, etc….and that’s a good thing.

The other thing I remember about Yangshuo was the lack of Chinese tourists.  Guilin was overwhelmed with them….but not in Yangshuo.  At least that’s my memory.

Back in Guilin, to take the train to Kunming, I saw a small shop with the characters “存包”.   I saw a lot of people putting their bags and luggage in this shop, giving them to an older man at the gate.  He in turn gave them a ticket.   I showed him my ticket.  With little experience travelling, I of course thought that he would put my bag on the train, at my seat, for me, rather than me myself having to lug the bag onto the train. 

Sure enough that did not happen,   Obviously,  the little storage area next to the entrance to the rail station was a place to store one’s luggage only, as opposed to having someone put it on the train for you.  In hindsight, my foolishness and lack of experience is even more appalling by the simple fact the store keeper never made a record of where I sit, or of my ticket itself, on the train.  What did me in was my lack of experience travelling, still nonexistent knowledge of Chinese characters, and my great fatigue at hauling around what amounted to a great gym bag, cum suitcase.

All I had on me was a backpack, and that is what I used in Kunming.   Still clueless as to why I had not rec’d my bag on the train, I arrived in Kunming, with little to wear, etc.  Basically all I had was my passport, and flimsy backpack. 

Still, I enjoyed Kunming, but never had a chance to make it down to Dali.  The highlights of my trip was seeing a naked Chinese man with hair longer than Cher’s, walking down the street and a case of the worst constipation I ever encountered.   (I was finally able to relieve myself up in the mountains behind a couple of large rocks.   However, a goat crept up on me and startled the shit out of me, greatly helping my cause)

Back on the train in Kunming, still with this ticket stub in my hand, I found myself in a hard sleeper.  Now, when on a Chinese train in a hard sleeper, there really is no place to go for privacy, and one should not expect any.  Yet, it really is one of the best ways to practice one’s Chinese, and to mingle with the Masses.   Everyone is friendly, and curious, and I don’t recall how, but I did meet a newlywed couple, on their honeymoon.

Yep that’s right.  A couple of newlyweds were in hard sleeper class on their honeymoon. (try that today) I recall she was pretty, though not my type, and a bit towards the chubby side, and very nice to me.  I had just completed my first semester of Mandarin, and confident by nature, was having the adventure of my life. 

Only 6 months earlier I was taking a biology final to graduate!  Yet now, I’m “in the wild” so to speak, hanging with the Natives on their terms.  In retrospect I was simply overwhelmed with the Experience.  Enough so to easily hide any sense of inadequacy I should’ve felt.  I remember this young lady spoke Chinese to me very slowly, and half the time I couldn’t understand her.  She basically spoke to me like I was a 3 year old.  

Feeling comfortable with her, I took my stub out of my hand and showed it to her.   Still absolutely clueless as to where “I’d fucked up”,  I was with all innocence asking her what had become of my bag.  She of course knew what was up, and realized my bag was still in storage in Guilin.  She took my ticket and left me.  She came back a bit later and mentioned she had went to see the conductor. 

Later on workers would come by and speak with her, and of course all 6 beds of my section gobbled everything up, while I was blissfully clueless in the eyes of the Chinese as to what a dumbass I had been. Upon occasion a worker would show up and a conversation would take place.  The worker would glance at me though, and say nothing.   I do distinctly remember one of the railway workers muttering that so common phrase when speaking with her though, “ 好麻烦!”  Without question, everything had been done because  it was 1991 and I was a 外宾。 

 Don’t tell me for an instance though her smile and persistence didn’t help.
Only as the train rolled into Guilin, did I have a clue as to what she had been doing during this entire trip.  The trip from Kunming to Guangzhou was 56 hours.  So I’d have to imagine it was at least half of that to Guilin, if not more. 

Still utterly brainless to my ignorance it all came crystal to me when upon looking out upon the platform I saw two Chinese Railway workers(not one!) each carrying a strap of my overweight gym bag, to the car of the Ignorant Laowai. 

Only then did the Halo of Ignorance dissolve from above my slightly big head(which I had developed during this entire trip I taken solo.  It’s easy to think one is a big shot when he comes to China and learns Chinese.  Everyone tells you how great you are.   I wonder how the new students feel though, when they listen to people telling them how great they are whilst listening to a real badass laowai speak Mandarin on CCTV)

Alas, only when the blanket of ignorance washed away from my face, was I able with as much gratitude as I could muster thank this kind newlywed for what she had done for me.  I never saw her again.  I don’t recall why, either.  I eventually upgraded to a Soft Sleeper for the final leg of the journey.   I only realize now the effort and focus it took to help me out, when she could’ve simply gazed into her husband’s eyes and forgotten all abt me, the bag and that stub. 


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  2. Allow me to only briefly come down from my pedestal for a moment....but your better half passes the eye test


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