Becoming comfortable in our environment

By May 4 when we left for Shanghai, I was beginning to realize the enormity of our adventure.

The last few days of April found us staying at the Hutian Hotel in Guang Zhou. The city yearly hosts the largest trade show in China and Wen, Sharon and Paul were attending it.

While they made their way to the huge convention centre for the day, I decided to strike out on my own and walked to a large nearby park to get some sketching done. It was a beautiful morning in spite of the pollution which we had come to accept as a part of the cities of China.

Grandparents with their grandchildren were everywhere. I found myself a place to sit and began to sketch. Curiosity knows no nationality and soon the grandparents were bringing their little ones close by to see what I was doing. Through smiles and gestures we communicated without a single shared word. Fortunately, I had a pocketful of Canadian flag lapel pins which I gave away to the children. I felt like visiting royalty!

When we were all reunited that evening and had eaten, we headed for a large night market with the goal of buying a shirt for Paul. You need to understand that bargaining in Asia is a blood sport at which we westerners are miserable pikers. Paul found a shirt that he liked and began to show interest. The seller, gleefully seeing a hugely profitable sale, claimed it was “same-same only different” as a famous American brand and named an outrageous price. Sharon began to squirm with indignation. She could see that someone was going to lose and it wasn’t going to be the seller.

She stepped in and took over with a ferocity that was astounding. Within a few short minutes, Paul was the startled owner of a knock-off that Sharon had haggled down to three dollars.

Our shopping lessons extended to an experience in an enormous computer and camera store. By now I had mostly forgotten that I wasn’t Chinese so it was natural to fall into the role of the grandparent. We took the escalator to the appropriate floor, searching for a spare camera battery for Wen’s very new camera. Immediately, two or three salespeople attended and an interesting ritual began.

First, and apparently most importantly, the “grandparents” were given stools to sit on and a cup of hot water to drink. Cold water is not considered to be good for your health. Once the old ones were attended to, there came the serious business of determining which battery was required. Everyone talked at once and nobody smiled, yet clearly they were enjoying themselves. After some discussion, all in Cantonese of course, it was determined that the battery would be available in a few days and we could pick it up then.

The most amazing aspect of it all was that when we went around later to pick it up, the original salesperson came all the way down to our vehicle, hand-delivered it and then left with a cheery wave. That was service!

As you can see, we were becoming increasingly comfortable in our environment. Paul and I began to venture out on our own during daylight hours to people watch and to begin shopping for little gifts for our Chinese hosts. We were at ease with the money by now so shopping wasn’t completely intimidating. Even though there were many more people than I was comfortable with on the streets, I never once bumped into anyone.

There is a sense of one’s space that took me by surprise. Seniors unselfconsciously practiced Tai Chi on the pathways that ran alongside the Pearl River. And of course, there were the signs everywhere that, translated into fractured English, made us feel at home.

By May 4 when we left for Shanghai, our last Chinese destination before returning home, I was beginning to realize the enormity of our adventure and wondering in which way I was being transformed.


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