This is probably not the place for words

In the sultry heat of the mid-afternoon sun I sit on a street corner of a small Chinese rural village using the internet of the local hairdressing shop. I’ve just had lunch with my grandmother and now I’m trying to make use of the hairdressing shop’s wi-fi so I can talk to some friends of mine who live overseas. No one is online, though, and so I set about roaming the web, aimlessly scrolling down my Facebook feed to see what’s happening in other parts of the world. Over other people’s posts about cats and breakups and France the cicadas chirp in unison and cars, three-wheeled trucks and pedestrians pass by. The young, stylish employees of the hairdressing shop invite me to come sit inside but I feel just right, out here on the porch on this summer’s day.

Whilst reading a literary review about a newly published book – the author is a young surgeon who was told he had cancer at the age 35 and this led him to discover his own personal answer to the ‘meaning of life’ – something compelled me to look up. Was it a sound or a sight caught out of the corner of my eye? I don’t know, but I looked, and what I looked up to see was the sight of a man and his bike in the middle of the road. He was obviously carrying something on the bike’s back rack – a large blue plastic crate four to five times the width of his bicycle, and it had come down. I watched as he bent over to turn the crate right-side up, and as he started to collect his belongings, his bike toppled over too. His skin was blistered red from (most probably) working all day in the sun. I watched him struggle, and inside me an internal conflict raged.

A sight like this in Australia would have me up before I know it, heading over to help the person in need. There’s no question about it. But China does something funny to you, or at least, it does it to me. Whether it’s the overwhelming mass of its peoples, the reservedness and lack of trust within its culture, or the common warnings heeded to me by my family – “be careful, you can’t trust strangers, it’s dangerous, it’s not like in the west, you’ll get scammed” – whatever it is, I’ve noticed that my open, caring, trusting, ‘leap into the unknown’ nature has slowly been worn down here. I’ve seen countless occasions of people needing help on the street and much to the disappointment of the Angela that I know, I admit that I’ve hesitated to help. I hate it, but it is what it is.

And so sitting here on this porch pondering this over like some kind of life insurance analyst – “he’ll be able to fix it by himself”, or “it’s ok, you don’t need to help everyone”, or “what are the chances that you do help and then this is a scam?” – a small part of me awakens and I remember just how difficult it can be to sort your shit out when you’re trying to fasten a huge load onto the back of your bike. Empathy kicked in, and further more: common human sense. I tell myself “fuck it”, and before I know it I’m putting my phone away and heading over to cross the street. I’m so angry at myself as I walk over to this stranger in need – “I don’t want to be a fucking distrustful, anxious coward, and this is not who I was meant to be”. On my way over I feel other people’s eyes on me, and more alarmingly, I feel my own: “what are you doing?” I hear another one of my own voices telling me, “we don’t do this.”

Brushing that worrying, nagging voice aside, I ask the stranger in Chinese, “would you like some help?” “You don’t have to,” he replies, out of courtesy. “No, no worries!” I respond, more confidently, and I take the initiative to bend down to help him lift up his crate. As we lift it up and prop it back on the rack, I notice how heavy it is. I also notice how it’s already pretty broken on two of its sides. It would normally have been thrown out and replaced if we were in the west. Held together by reused packing tape, I also see that it’s filled with what most people would classify as rubbish. Broken planks of wood and empty plastic drinking bottles and two brooms made of branches covered in lint and dust – perhaps he’s bringing it somewhere to collect some money, or perhaps he’s a street-sweeper. Seeing me notice what’s in the back of his crate, the stranger averts his gaze. Thinking back to when I first came onto his path, I wonder if he’s been averting his gaze ever since we met.

A feeling rises in me. I feel uncomfortable standing next to him – me, a privileged Chinese-Australian girl, sitting on a street corner reading about the meaning of life on my iPhone. Him, a rural Chinese man in his thirties or forties, skin not only blistered from the sun but also marked by a skin condition, clothes tattered and old, riding around with a broken blue crate full of trash. Upstairs I have a laptop and two cameras and bags and clothes which probably cost more than he’ll ever make in a lifetime. On hot summer’s days I can holiday in China and sit back and relax, not knowing an iota of the labour of the work that he must go through every day. I can’t help but notice the immense difference in where we come from and what we have, and my face flushes hot and red with shame. I remember another reason why so few people want to help each other here, or anywhere – it’s confronting. To bear witness to the shared, painful, vulnerability of our lived experiencing of the human condition – it’s hard. I want to avert my eyes and look away, numbing the feeling of pain and conflict and guilt, but I don’t.

“It’s ok,” I murmur, as he apologies for needing me to help him fix his bike. My limited vocabulary fails me and anyways, this is probably not the place for words. “It’s ok.” Carefully, I watch as he fastens his crate back on in that traditionally unique way that one does when you’re doing something in a makeshift manner. Without being asked I pull on the recycled packing tape to help him tie it down tighter. As much as my shame and guilt will allow it, I want to be present and be there with him. Even if just for a moment. Once both sides are fastened I stay until he’s ready to go. We don’t exchange words until he starts to ride off. “Go slowly,” I say – a courteous Chinese salutation at his departure. “Thank you,” he responds, and I say, “There’s no need.”

With that we’re both on our way, back to our own respective lives. I resume my place on the porch and watch the stranger disappear out of my sight. Turning back on my phone, suddenly I’m not so interested in what this thirty something year old surgeon has to say about the meaning of life. It’s not that I suddenly understand, or that I’m enlightened or anything. I just know that this small, lived experience was so much more powerful than anything that I may ever glean from a book. What it was, was a whole fragment of life, held in a moment. What it did, was it left me so much more questioning and alive.

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