The Kindness of Strangers

Shanghai is a very friendly city. I was barely out of the car from the airport when people started coming up to me trying to help me with my shopping dilemmas: “Watch? Watch? You want to buy watch? Laser? You want green laser?”

Later, after Tom arrived, we went out for a beer and found that the waitresses were incredibly friendly. They sat down with us and let us practice our Mandarin with them. Of course, we soon realized that they were prostitutes, but they were friendly nonetheless. When we told them we had to leave, they were surprised but not upset with us for the opportunity cost they incurred.

Seriously, though, what I will remember most about Shanghai is the kindness and friendliness of the people I’ve met. The staff at Mandarin House is a pleasure to work with. More significantly, my schoolmates have been a joy to study and live with.

As noted in previous posts, most of my fellow students are young. Some are very young – there are a couple of kids here who are 18 or 19 years old, taking language lessons during a “gap year” before university. There are some older folk in the school, though, some taking classes while working for firms in Shanghai. Finally, there’s Tom and me and a couple of other experienced cats. In spite of the age differences, though, folk have little difficulty talking to each other and establishing friendships.

Note, too, that my schoolmates are a very international crowd. I’ve met people from Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, India, Holland, Sweden, the UK and Lichtenstein. Yes, Lichtenstein; Constantine (one of my flatmates) is the first Lichtensteiner I’ve ever met. (N.B. I had to look up “Lichtensteiner”).

In spite of the cultural differences, in fact, I suspect because of the cultural differences, people are nice and friendly towards each other.

I remember very similar circumstances when I lived in Barcelona. On Sundays, several families would gather for English mass at the local church. I don’t think any of us were particularly religious — we simply enjoyed getting together with other expats. These outings helped form many good friendships.

The expats in Barcelona and the schoolmates in Shanghai have something in common. Each group had a shared challenge. In Barcelona, the expats all had to deal with housing, schooling, transportation issues, utility companies and many other frustrations associated with living in a new country. In Shanghai, my classmates and I have to figure out how to eat, travel, shop and take care of the many mundane aspects of life made tremendously more difficult by the challenge of a language that is still mostly incomprehensible to us.

Beyond this shared purpose, both groups share something else in common (among themselves and with each other). The groups are both comprised of Travelers. I capitalize this word for emphasis. Travelers are a distinct group. A friend of mine (someone I met in Spain, naturally) once noted that “Travelers like Travelers.” My friend explained that there are two types of people in the world: Travelers and non-Travelers. The former embrace the challenges and wonder of travel whereas the latter do not.I’ve shared this simple statement with friends here and back home and Travelers quickly get it.

Travelers are, by nature, people curious about the world. They are open to different ways of thinking and different ways of living. Travelers, by necessity, are adaptable to strange situations and tolerant of other (different) people.

While I have enjoyed learning Mandarin this last week-and-a-half, my greatest joy this trip has been to find myself surrounded by friendly fellow Travelers willing to share their lives with me and interested in finding out about my own.

As to kindness, I need only quote Vincent, another flatmate (28 years old): “When I’m talking to you guys, it doesn’t feel like I’m talking to old people.”

Bless his heart.

Tom, Ying, Me, Vincent and Till

Tom, Ying, Me, Vincent and Till