As well as walking along the street, sitting in a restaurant or cafe, riding the bus or trying to cross any of Shenzhen’s massive roads without being killed by the crazy and relentless traffic; the underground transport system, or subway, is a very common place for me to make new Chinese friends.
On one occassion a group of about six people, men and women, spotted me from the other side of the carriage and approached me swiftly. They were dressed in business attire, and kind of smiling, but there were so many of them it was still a little scary.
What did they want with me? Had I done something wrong? Were they from the government? Had they been following me? Would I ever see my friends and family in England again? And what exactly did they have in their briefcases?
Just some of the thoughts that rushed through my mind as they advanced.
They stood in a semi-circle around me and the biggest guy opened with, ‘hello, you have a nice smell.’ Which made me want to sniff myself until I realised that he meant ‘smile.’
From then on everything was okay. After asking me the usual questions about where I was from and what I was doing in China, they revealed that they were from a university organisation and wondered if I’d give a speech there sometime in the future, giving me their business card before they departed.
The encounter following that a few days later was also pleasant but even more strange, albeit, in a good way again, thankfully.
I was standing on the platform thinking about nothing in particular when a young Chinese man (maybe in his late 20’s?) dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, came up to me.
His shy smile was quite sweet. Appreciating his bravery in approaching me, I smiled back.
‘Hello, can I talk to you, maybe practice my English a little?’ He asked.
‘Sure, no problem.’ People asking to practice their English with foreigners is a regular occurence in China.
But as soon as I agreed, the poor young man didn’t know what to say! Maybe he’d been expecting me to dismiss his request so he hadn’t actually prepared anything else.
He put his hands in his pockets, kept a vague smile on his face, shoulders hunched while a red flush crept up his neck and onto his cheeks as he stared at the ceiling. It was like all the words left his head and he’d become mute.
To save his embarrassment I asked him a few questions about where he lived and worked and how old he was. Turns out he was on his way to a job interview with an American company. So, I wished him luck and told him that I thought his English was pretty good.
The third major instance of being befriended by someone on the subway started off well, but turned out to be a little less positive.
I don’t want to re-live it right now but you can read about it on Jocelyn Eikenburg’s fab blog about interracial relationships; Speaking of China.