Two weeks ago, Andy and I went on a short road trip to the countryside of China. Our four hour bus tour brought us near Ninghai. The group that organized the trip isn’t worth discussing because we aren’t likely to go along with them again, but let’s just say their party antics weren’t really our speed. (If you know me and Andy at all, you’ll know what I mean here.)
At any rate, we enjoyed the trip where we could. As usual, we had some of our best, most memorable moments when off on our own exploring. One particular memory will probably stick with me the rest of my life…
We had lost the trail. The rest of our group got sidetracked at the watering hole and went swimming. I made some comment about not wanting to sprain my ankle on slippery rocks while horsing around with people I barely know, but whom I knew well enough to realize they wouldn’t give a damn. So we moved on by ourselves.
We turned around. In the midday sun, we walked the two miles of boring roadside trail that had taken us from the parking area to the watering hole. This time I got to hear the call and response of birds around us without the punctuation of one woman (who is old enough to know better) talking about how drunk she got last night.
We drank all our water, but, thankfully, the town had a small restaurant so Andy and I didn’t have to wait for the rest of the group to return before quenching our thirst. After toasting our slightly-cooler-than-room-temperature beers, we agreed that we should explore the tiny village nearby while we waited for the rest of the group. (Sidenote: Beer will always be safer–and usually cooler–than the water in China, hence our choice in beverage. But at 2% alcohol, it’s hardly enough for anyone other than your liver to tell that you’ve had a beer.)
We saw ducks and chickens waddling about freely, making their way up an alley and into a side yard pasture where we found two goats grazing. We saw a few villagers and greeted them as we always do: “Ni hao.” Sometimes they reply and sometimes they just stare. An old woman smiled a toothless smile and watched us as we passed.
Andy had been taking photos on the entire trip. It was our first time away from Suzhou and first time experiencing the small town life in China, so there was a lot to take in. I took a few snapshots with my iPhone, but mostly just looked around with respect and curiosity.
In the distance, I heard members of our group announcing their arrival at the bus, so I knew we should make our way back soon. I said as much to Andy and we started down the dirt road that we followed into the village.
On our way out, we saw the same toothless old woman. She said something and came closer to me. She touched my shoulder and then her head saying “hen gao” (很高, have height or tall), indicating that she realized how tall I am. We shared a laugh and I thought that was the end of the interaction. I turned toward Andy, who had been taking photos of something else and looked back when he noticed I wasn’t beside him.
Then she took my hand.
I was a little startled, but I let her hold my fingers. She talked to me like I could understand her. (I couldn’t.) I understood a few words here and there, but even my best Chinese listening skills haven’t prepared me for village dialects of Mandarin and pronunciation influenced by toothlessness.
I remember thinking that she was so happy, just standing there in the dirt road holding a stranger’s hand. So I held her hand back. I relaxed my hand and closed my long fingers towards my wrist. Her small, wrinkled palm rested against mine, my fingers tucked neatly inside hers.
“I think you made a friend,” Andy said. I smiled at him. His camera still dangled from his shoulder, so I muttered, “can you take a picture?” I realized that I might be in the middle of something memorable. He politely clicked the shutter from his waist, doing his best to capture the moment without instigating a response to the camera.
She talked on, still holding my hand. We walked a few steps, my hand and her walking stick supporting her.
I thought to myself, maybe she’s lonely; maybe she just wants to talk to someone.
So I listened.
I absolutely could not understand a word she said, but I listened. I gave a Chinese affirmative “mmh” every so often (different from the American “uh huh”) to articulate my concern and to show my interest because I didn’t know how else to show I cared.
She went on, taking a few steps, saying something else, taking a few more steps, saying something else. I laughed when she laughed. I returned her smiles.
At the end of the road, I noticed most of our group had made it back to the bus. It had taken a lot longer to get there by walking with my new friend. I desperately wished for the language skills to say something meaningful to her, but instead I cobbled together a few phrases: This is my husband. I enjoyed our time together. I have to go now. I love you.
I gently squeezed her hand and let go. She waved as we walked away, saying something else, and we waved back.
I did love her. I love her still.
I have no idea why she needed to hold the hand of a six-foot tall white woman wandering around her village in brightly colored running gear. I don’t know what I meant to her or what she said to me, but she was friendly. I was a stranger peeking into her life (as politely and carefully as possible, but I know this curiosity isn’t always welcomed), and she took my hand. She walked with me and talked with me. I was so grounded in those moments. She could have been telling me her life story or what she ate for breakfast, but it didn’t matter. She wanted to talk to me, so I listened.
I’ve been thinking about this moment for weeks now and several things have come over me: if only we could all be so gently interested in strangers, the world would be a kinder place. If we could respond to each other with kindness instead of contempt or judgment, the world would be a better place. And finally? Here’s where I cry…
I’ve really struggled with missing home lately as well as questioning my decision to move abroad, and much of that is tied to the poor health of not one but both of my grandmothers. It’s hard to get news about them, and, this is hard to admit, but sometimes I would rather not get news from home because what I don’t know can’t hurt me. (I know that sounds terrible. I know it’s not a good way to deal with what’s happening. Yet, amid other seriously stressful life events, it has sometimes seemed like a reasonable way to compartmentalize the strong feelings that come along with the mourning of missing home and, more specifically, my grandmothers.)
And then, out of nowhere, was this old woman who wanted to hold my hand and walk with me. She was someone’s grandmother, of that I’m sure. And in that moment, she was my grandmother. She welcomed me and she loved me.
Maybe we needed each other. God only knows. Powers greater than me and her put us together for those precious minutes to make a real connection that, I’m guessing, both of us needed. I thought she was talking to me because she was lonely, but really I think it’s because I was lonely. I needed my grandmas, so the Universe gave me her.
And I will never forget that.