Whilst waiting for a colleague of mine to arrive from Xinpu, a town 45km East of Donghai, as the bus was delayed, I entered an army supply store, full of fancy army clothing, among which one could also find big brand names like Caterpillar walking boots, Jack Wolf jackets and other good mark gems worth exploring.
The shopkeeper received me with a big smile and a very friendly welcome. We couldn’t converse, but for body language and mere sounds raising as high as to my pigeon Chinese at that time. I came to recognise a number in what she was saying – 47 and pointing at herself. Once again I took this as an indication that there are angels watching over us and helping us decipher the world around us, for I had an inkling that she was telling me her age. I mimicked somehow that I was sporting the same number and she understood and looked pleasantly surprised. To convince her, I scribbled the year of my birth on a piece of paper – I always take pen and paper with me for communication purposes and she pointed at it and back at herself a couple of times. Needless to say that a hug followed and our smiles increased, resembling two Cheshire cats with a plate of cream in front.
When I could gather my thoughts about what I was going to say next, I ventured to explain to her that I was looking for products that could be exported to Spain as part of a future venture that could sustain a good living for both sides and that her products would fit the bill nicely. This didn’t hit the right spot in her mind, as her face delivered only a puzzled look with which I couldn’t advance the conversation. What I do on those occasions is to reassure the people involved that would return, with the reinforcement of a friend who could help me communicate better. Usually it takes time until somebody becomes available to help me, and I need to be patient for days, sometimes weeks for me to convey a simple message to people I really think it’s worthwhile conversing with.
When I returned with my colleague Judy, the lady wasn’t there, but her sister was, so we had to explain the whole episode and bring her up-to-date, but that didn’t take long, as I think even their primary school teacher probably knew about me by then. So then we got down to business and proceeded with our point in mind and the result was more than anticipated. She agreed the idea was a good one, but she said it would be better if we would build a friendship tie first and then consider the business from that standpoint. I personally believe in the win-win, collaborative business style, so I was over the moon to realise that people over here can view business through a humane prism, rather than the soulless activity one would rather have to embark on in a team made up of accountants, lawyers and other protective advisors as such. I agreed to proceed in these terms, we exchanged a few more pleasantries and then we left, enquiring when would Li, her sister, return to the shop.
The following time I passed by with another colleague of mine, Li was there and she received us warmheartedly. She invited me to lunch with her, in about a couple of hours – she was making noodles. I had to rearrange my schedule around a bit, to be able to accommodate the invitation, as I didn’t dare turn it down. I returned to accompany her, but this time we needed to communicate without an interpreter and we managed, to an extent. Whatever the words would convey, our heartfelt feelings surfaced effortlessly and were exchanged, accompanied by smiles and laughter at every opportunity.
Frequently during my days and weeks I was contemplating means and ways for accomplishing my idea of exporting their wares to Spain and setting up a little shop that would sustain a modest but good living. I didn’t have the answer on that occasion, but nevertheless we had a good time and I departed with a renewed feeling of a stronger friendship.
When spring approached and I needed some shoes to replace my boots, I thought of no other place than Li’s shop, so I stopped by again, accompanied by 2 of my colleagues now to try on some of her walking boots and sports shoes. For some reason, in spite of trying on shoes a size bigger than my normal 37, they would still hurt. Even a 39 would hurt and I tried about 5 or 6 pairs. Well, we didn’t have the whole day for this, so Linda indicated at some point that c’mon, it was time to go – boss was waiting for us at school! By this time Li was already sitting at her computer for a while, maybe playing her games or chatting online with other people, ignoring our frantic search for the right shoes. I don’t know how long she was operating in two worlds by then, but it didn’t matter – it made me feel more in a friend’s shop, almost like part of the family, than in a cold and official shopping environment, where the assistant would hover over my head, hardly restraining herself from putting the shoes on for me as one would with a child.
This episode was brought to my attention in a distinctive light a few weeks later, when we discussed the coldness of other vendors (of crystals this time), when I was questioning the height of their rudeness on dismissing me as a completely insignificant being if I wouldn’t spend some money on their wares there and then precisely. Linda compared Li to these pushy vendors, just to add to my astonishment. My mind lost its agility in a tick – I could even feel the weight of each thought dragging along to get new thinking supplies from a nearby dendrite, but even these seemed to have clogged up as well, almost with the sound of a slowing down gramophone in need of a rewind.
Linda explained to me how, after a while, Li started rolling her eyes backwards at every new request of mine for a pair of shoes that should fit. When I proceeded, dopily trying the fourth pair on, she even left us on our own and retrieved to her corner, in the company of her computer behind the high counter, from where she could just watch us fumbling about with her shoes, with a sour expression on her face that triggered the first signal to go from Linda. I was completely unaware of this dialogue of emotions behind the scenes, instead I felt on home territory, with such a trusting shop assistant!
I knew I was going to disarm Linda by asking ‘why then did Li invite me to lunch with her, if she didn’t intend to befriend me?’, but I was wrong again! With her response came a further clamp down that not only affected in my thinking, but even my jaw felt anchored by some invisible force, restricting my mouth from closing back into a decent pose. ‘No, no, no, no!’ she started convincingly… ‘She didn’t mean to invite you for lunch; she said the right and polite thing on that occasion. If you were just as civil in return, you should have refused the invitation graciously’.
I then plunged into a self-defence mode, explaining to Linda how, were we to meet in London where I would be the hostess, if I liked her as Li liked me and I’d invite her to spend her lunch break with me, it would be because I actually wished for her company and the reciprocating good feeling of the moment. She dismissed this as trivial – ‘not in China!’
Asking for a hard to assimilate clarification, she went on revealing the fact that a good face and etiquette is more important in China than is a nebulous and illusionary feeling of friendship. What you can see and hear is stronger than what you can’t see, but only think or feel. This is why money is always more treasured over here than good will and a forthright hand-shake. From the two treasured rewards above – something one can hear and something one can touch, the latter will always be preferred.
My mouth continued in a half-numbed position and by now I felt a request for a mindful retrieval was in order. It was the first time since my arrival to China that I felt like building an invisible cocoon around me and I spent up to a week in my space, avoiding people as much as I could. For sure, if I was as useless in discerning truthfulness in people’s demeanour (let alone my language barriers), what was the point in even spending time with them? Would I not be better off reading a good book about the whole thing and leave my emotions to rest? Friendship? What friendship?!
I am now, after the few months that flew by in the meanwhile, contemplating the idea to go and see Li, with an interpreter, to ask in earnest for her version of what happened. Simply, in the name of friendship, if there is such a thing… If it’s one-sided and unreciprocated, does it still count as friendship?