One Day In Winter
© Copyright 2019 by Deon Matzen
I could say it was a cold, snowy, wintry day, but that would not be accurate as it seldom snows in Beijing. It was cold, very dry and wintry, cold enough to go ice skating on the lake at the Summer Palace. The ice there was about fourteen inches thick. It was COLD. It seldom snowed, but when it did there was gridlock that was unimaginable. Mostly everything is covered in a rime of frost. Winter was cold in Beijing. If the wind was blowing it was colder still.
I don’t remember my destination that day, but it entailed taking the bus to the subway rather than riding my bicycle. It was too cold with the wind chill factor to breeze on my bicycle down to the subway. The busses were always a good place to warm up as they were very crowded with lots of folks leaning against one another. I counted six leaning on me on one such ride. The windows were pretty steamed up but I could still see the world outside by wiping it. It was like a steam room in the bus. Outside everything was covered with a dusting of frost.
This day, in spite of the crowd, I was given a seat, which happened frequently, my being the only foreigner on the bus and a white haired one besides. People wanted to talk with me so often they would give me their seat. I felt very guilty when the person was much, much older than I, but because of my white hair, they thought I was old.
On this particular day, I had an aisle seat just behind the conductor in his small cubical, who monitored the door toward the middle of the bus. In the first seat behind the conductor was an older woman with a small granddaughter. She picked up her granddaughter and indicated I should take the seat next to her while the little girl sat in her lap.
She acknowledged me with a nod of her head and a greeting of nihao which I returned, it being one of the few Chinese Mandarin words I knew. Almost at once she began chattering with me, thinking I understood what she said. I explained in sign that I did not speak the language. “Oh, too bad’” she indicated in return. We smiled a lot at each other and I greeted her granddaughter. Several times she started to initiate conversation and then would realize that I didn’t understand. She was eager to communicate with me.
While I lived in Beijing I kept American pennies in my coat pockets so I could give them to children who were willing to speak with me. Often they would sing me a song in English that they had learned in grade school. The pennies were a great way to make new friends, bribe them. I pulled out a penny and asked grandmother if it was OK for the girl to have one. She replied “Yes.” (in Chinese). The little girl was delighted and gave me a shy smile, leaning into her grandmother’s heavy coat to peek at me.
Grandmother tried to communicate with me to see who I was. Along with pennies, I kept business cards in my pocket as well. The nice thing about the cards my university provided for me to use was they were English on one side and Chinese characters on the other. Grandmother now knew who I was and why I was in Beijing.
After sitting a few minutes in silence, I hear “AAAA!” Grandmother was incredulous. She was looking at my feet. I wear sandals year around. In Beijing, sandal season is June to September. Wearing sandals was a great icebreaker for conversations as strangers would come up to me in the street and point at my feet and ask if they were cold, often by using charades, they hugging themselves and shivering while I waved my hand in front of my face as though I were hot. Grandmother must have been perusing my attire when I wasn’t looking. She was astounded that I would wear sandals in winter and worse still with no socks.
She grabbed the sleeve of the conductor who was standing in his cubical at the door and pulled it to get his attention. She was jabbering a mile a minute and pointing out my feet to him. He looked on curiously. In pantomime I indicated that my feet were not cold. Meanwhile they had alerted all the passengers who were nearby. I held my foot up in the aisle so everyone can see my turquoise blue sandal.
Meanwhile the bus continues down the street. I was sitting quietly watching the scene when I thought I felt a bug crawling up my pant leg. It was winter and cold and I was surprised there were bugs out and about in the cold. I reached down to dust it away and bumped into grandmother’s hand. She was trying to raise my pant leg. She looked at me, though somewhat guiltily, and asked me to raise it. I smiled and did so. She leaned way over and looked up my pant leg to see my purple long winter underwear. She sat back in her seat with a very satisfied smile, nodding her head and gave me the thumbs up. I passed the test. I wasn’t as tough as she thought.
An interesting afterward: the next day I received an email from a woman whom I didn’t know, thanking me for my kindness to her mother and daughter. It seems that the grandmother had a big story to tell when her daughter got home from work. Grandmother had produced my business card for her daughter to read. The daughter felt she should write and tell me how much our time together had meant to her mother. Grandmother felt she had not been able to adequate express it to me and since her daughter spoke English would she please write and tell me.
Just one of my wonderful experiences while living in Beijing.