It’s true. Even in the U.S., with our claims of friendliness and helpfulness, I’ve never depended on strangers to help me. Once when my tire blew apart on the turnpike, a friend and I turned down several offers for help because we were too afraid people would have ulterior motives.
Well, Andy and I got schooled on kindness last night.
We were at IKEA (yes, again) and it was closing time. Not where I intended to be on a Monday night, but, hey, tomorrow we will have a mattress that doesn’t feel like a bare boxspring! So at IKEA in Suzhou, it’s a little way away from anywhere you can just hail a taxi. You either have to haul yourself to a busy road to hail one (we didn’t) or you have to know how to call one (we didn’t).
I cued up my phone app with the phrase for “Can you please call a taxi for me?” and looked at the scraggly lines of people making their way down the escalator to the parking lot where I stood, wholly uncertain that I could manage saying the phrase correctly.
As a woman, I always carefully select who I will ask for help. I usually ask another woman. If she has kids or a dog, those are bonus points. Also, there is safety in numbers, so if it’s women in a group, those are my kind of people. They get the ask.
So I slowly approached a woman following her husband on the sidewalk. Her one hand was occupied with her phone; the other held her child’s hand. (The child’s other hand held an ice cream cone.)
请问。。。(qing wen; may I please ask you a question?) Then I turned up the volume on my iPhone so she could hear the app asking the question.
Asking for help when you need it gets much easier when you do it regularly. There’s still that moment when I stubbornly wish I could figure everything out on my own, but then I swallow my pride or whatever invisible force in the way and get on with it. Not asking does not yield results.
The woman stopped and listened to my phone. She and her husband started talking quickly in Chinese. I heard Uber. I had recently read that foreigners are no longer allowed to use Uber. (The reasons are unclear to me, but rules change often in China.) I tried to explain this in my limited Chinese: 未果没有Uber. Wei guo mei you Uber. Foreigners don’t have Uber.
To this she said, Didi. Ah, yes, Didi is the Chinese response to Uber. It’s actually the reason why Uber is being phased out here. It’s part of WeChat, and I have access to it, but it’s also only in Chinese.
We poked at my cell phone for awhile until we discovered that, even with a Chinese person’s help, I could not call a taxi using Didi.
So the woman uses her phone, opens Didi, and begins the process of calling us a taxi. By this point, a group of three other Chinese women stopped to offer their input in both Chinese and English. It was quite funny, looking back on it, but at the time I was laser focused: it was after 9 p.m. and we needed to get home.
We have our address in Chinese. I keep it saved as an image on my iPhone. It’s in English and Chinese, and we’ve received mail from both U.S. and Chinese senders using this address. Still, when we show people what we call home, it seems to confuse them.
I’m trying to explain our address while receiving additional comments in Chinese from the peanut gallery of onlookers who are trying to help. While looking over the shoulder of the woman who, in my mind, I am praising for being so patient with me, I see the name of a business that is on our street. I point to it and say that address. That. That will get us where we need to be. We now live at Garden Bakery. Ha.
She makes the taxi request, receives the phone call to confirm, and then says, “three minutes.” Our Didi driver is three minutes away this whole time. Astonishing.
The driver shows up, helps us put our purchases (in giant, blue tarp-like IKEA bags, no less) into the trunk, and chats with our patroness of Didi before we depart. I give an emphatic 谢谢 (xie xie; thank you) before hopping into the backseat, and we’re off.
The ride was uneventful. Andy and I caught up with each other about the day. When we arrive at Garden Bakery (ha), I tell the driver 左边 (zuo bian; left) where he parks and proceeds to help us with our bags in the back.
After grabbing a bag and hoisting it to my shoulder I ask him, 多少钱？(duo shao qian; how much?). He says some things I don’t understand and motions “no.” I read “no” from his hands, face, and possibly voice. 清讫。(qing qi; payment received)
The driver got back in his car and drove away.
We stood there with our giant, blue tarp-like IKEA bags. I turned to Andy, who was already looking at me, and we were both agape. Dumbfounded. How had we missed the part where a complete stranger paid for our taxi?! It was 68 yuan, so just over $10. Not a fortune, but not a buck or two either.
We gathered ourselves and began to walk home. We discussed how we could have missed the actual transaction, that maybe our helpful friend had to pay for it using her phone in the same way Uber works in the U.S., that maybe she wouldn’t have asked us for payment. She mentioned “cash” once, and I said I have cash, and even demonstrated this by pulling a few bills out of my wallet. That never turned into us paying her, though.
By the time we reached our door, we realized that we had been schooled on kindness. The kindness that isn’t always present in the U.S. The kindness and willingness of people to help others, no matter who they are. The kindness of strangers. We were strangers in need, and she helped us. It took time and her money, but she helped us. We got home. We are grateful.
We’ll be paying it forward.