With clear air and temps in the low 60’s, I decided to go for an outing. I walked from our apartment toward Jianguomen Wai Da Bikes for Rent Jie, the main East-West avenue just a few blocks south of home. My plan was to go to the Palace Park and take some pictures. I figured if traffic was bad on Jianguomen Street I’d take the subway, which is extensive, cheap (30 to 40 cents) and easy to use even for a first-time visitor to the city. And renting a bike is yet another option: They number in the hundreds along most main streets, and can be rented using an app.
Traffic was fine, but I opted for the bus--my preferred mode of public transportation. Joe and my friends find this hysterical and atypical because I never frequented public transportation while living stateside. I explain that although it’s often slower, the bus allows you to see the sights, identify landmarks and orient yourself geographically. And, although the buses are crowded by Western standards, the riders seem less aggressive than their subway-riding counterparts. Beijing’s elderly seem to agree and comprise a good chunk of bus ridership.
Every Beijing bus has at least transit 3 workers on board. There’s the driver, there’s a person situated at the middle door who calls out each bus stop and ensures you swipe your fare card getting on and off, and then there’s a person who role seems to be security and who urges you to not to block the middle door. Whenever I board a bus, I’m with met the curious stares of the fare card monitor, the security person and other riders.
Getting a seat on any public transit in Beijing is a more aggressive version of the children’s game of musical chairs. Initially I found it disconcerting, now not so much and I managed to land a window seat. A few stops later my seat mate offered his seat to an old man. I greeted him in Mandarin and he asked where I was from. I responded, “America.” He asked if I was in Beijing for work, and I explained that I don’t work and had come for my husband’s job. This always prompts people to ask about his job. If it’s someone I do not know I simply say he works for an American company, rather than the U.S. State Department. (My reasoning will be made clearer a couple of paragraphs down.)
The man wanted to know how long we had been here, if I liked Beijing and Chinese food. I was proud to be able to have my portion of the conversation in Mandarin, and he was clearly pleased to be able to practice his English.
Not surprisingly, this unfolding exchange had drawn the attention of all the nearby passengers. A young woman who’d edged alongside was listening with amusement. He then asked something I didn’t understand, and she explained that he wanted to know if America has racism and if I had experienced it. She translated my response; during my life I had experienced racism on occasion, but not very often. The two of them had a brief exchange much of which I did not understand and then she said he thought it was because I was educated.
Then to my surprise he asked if my husband was black. This question caught me by surprise. I said no and then he wanted to know if he was a nice man. I replied, “Ta shi hen hao.” (“He’s very nice.) It was incredibly frustrating to have a nuanced conversation about a subject as complicated as race and racism limited by my language skills, and our interlocutor had since reached her destination and left us to our own devices.
I was curious about how he learned English, and whether he’d ever been to America. He taught himself English many many years ago English by studying International Phonetics. At that time he’d also applied for a visa to America, then by way of emphasis he took his right hand which he’d balled into a fist and pounded on the palm of his left and said they told him “No!” (Had I revealed that my husband worked at the embassy, the likelihood would have resulted in a series of questions as to why the visa was denied, or how his nephew who studies English could get a visa.)
He began gathering his cart and bag and said he’d be getting off at the next stop; I realized I’d ridden 3 or 4 stops beyond where I’d intended to get off. In Mandarin I told him it had been a pleasure to meet him. He responded in English, “I too,” which made me smile. It’s this kind of experience with strangers that make for good memories.
Keywords: black expat in china
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