Upon boarding the plane we discover our window seat on the Chinese tin can we’d elbowed and leaned our way into, taken. My son and I are 3 weeks into a backpacking trip of rural China, weariness having degenerated into truculence at the point in the last train station when I landed on my backpack during the trample that commenced when the conductor began taking tickets for reserved seats. Being an upside down turtle didn’t leave me warm and fuzzy. In Mandarin my son boots the man out and we reseat – John at the window, me in the middle, the Chinese gentleman on the aisle. I’m proud my son’s Mandarin instructors hadn’t neglected to teach words that facilitate ideas other than pleasantries and how to order food. At the mercy of a nation that’s yet to grasp the concept of waiting in line for your turn, the ability to defend oneself is a critical life skill. As the plane careens down the runway, the man strains to see out. Moments into the flight I’m sharing half my seat so he can have a better view. Flight attendants bring food and for the first time, overcoming the desire to shove back, I take notice.
He doesn’t lower the tray, he’s fumbling with everything, clearly uncomfortable; out of sorts even. One glance at my unwrapping a plastic fork and he quickly shoves the entire meal into a tiny cloth knapsack under his seat. So wanting to lean over and tell him “that’s going to leak all over your stuff”, instead “this is his first flight” spews from my mouth as my head spins toward my son. John’s face registers and we communicate over the roar of the engines. Leaning over me John begins speaking Mandarin. The gentleman’s face lights up indicating he understands we want him to have the window seat. He grabs the knapsack and begins to clamor over me. Laughing, John gently pushes and signals for him to step into the aisle so we can all stand and reverse our seating order. There’s a stir behind us. I catch snippets of people in various English accents saying nice things, surprise in their voices. The Chinese passengers must have been shocked speechless. Reseated after John unsuccessfully attempts to communicate a joke about musical chairs, the man reaches into the cloth knapsack and pulls out a bundle of flat, amber sticks, offering the entire bundle to us. Convincing him no gift is necessary he shoves one at me. I plop it into my mouth lollipop-like. He snatches it out and over our laughter gets the point across to John that it’s meant to be boiled, maybe tea?
The flight ends. The stampede commences and we get separated but not before I see the gentleman is traveling only with the tiny, crude knapsack, the bundle of sticks projecting out the top. On the tarmac John whispers “he’d never seen Western flatware; he didn’t know what to do with it – that’s why he didn’t eat.” I’m so moved by this man I begin looking for him. We rush to his side in the small terminal. He’s surprised to see us, as if there was no connection to our being on the plane with him and our being here now. He wastes no time however, and begins the attempt to communicate something. John struggles to reciprocate the conversation and before I know it our last image is of his back walking into the night towards the taxi stand. He disappeared and we never knew why he was on the first flight of his life with not even a change of clothing. Had there been a death in his family? Was someone in the city ill? Was he here for a job interview?
As we walk to our backpacks in luggage claim, I ask John what was said. “I think he was trying to thank us by extending an invitation to his room, his hotel room, the place he’s staying, but I wasn’t sure”. Being two unescorted foreigners on very foreign soil unsure of where we were spending the night, we likely would have still declined even if the offer had been fully understood.
I’ve never forgotten this man. He invariably comes to mind when the political articles hammer China on some new grievous shortcoming. That rural Chinese man’s human drama that day reminds me we’re talking about people with stories of tragedy and celebration and the firsts that can accompany those events. And he reminds me of an important human-to-human rule of engagement. I commemorated him in my journal with this entry. “In the span of only a day I’ve gone from complaining of the woeful lack of kindnesses during this trip to the slap-me-in-the-face reminder that the best kindnesses ARE THOSE YOU EXTEND TO OTHERS.” – Personal Journal Entry, April 20, 2008
Is it possible to go and return without photographic regrets? Not for me. On the China trip I came back to see I’d captured my son and I in China, the Chinese in China, but rarely the two together. This is one I cherish. My son has a few as well, but I can’t find them.