I stepped off of the bus and realized just a millisecond before my foot hit the pavement that I was getting out at the wrong stop. There was a stream of people behind me, so even a moment of hesitation would have caused a serious domino-effect collision, so I just kept going.
After the cascade of people had fanned out behind me, I found myself washed up on the sidewalk on a street in Beijing that I didn’t recognize. I froze. My sense of direction is usually spot on, but on the rare days when I can’t feel the compass in my blood, I liken it to forgetting how to walk.
I had decided that morning that I was going to conquer the bus system. In Beijing, the subways are the expensive ride at 2RMB per passenger, or less than 35 cents CAD a fare. The buses, however, are a mere .4RMB (or 4mao). This is the cheap transit at an equivalent of less than 7 cents CAD a fare.
We live in a place that isn’t right next to the subway. I had been wasting money on taxis to get to the subway station and it was irritating me, both economically and environmentally. But after learning that first bus route to the subway, I noticed that the buses serve the city so much more comprehensively and I wanted to understand them. Besides, I like to conquer my fears and the bus system in Beijing is, well, confounding, to say the least. And, I like a good challenge.
To perpetuate the challenge, I had purposely left the house without enough money for cab fare.
Note to all readers: this is dumb. Never do this. Especially not in a foreign country.
I waited there, frozen, until someone came walking by. Quietly and politely, I asked if she could tell me which direction I was facing. It was an older lady in her faded Maoist jacket, cropped hair and wrinkled face. Her eyes registered surprise to be spoken to by a foreigner in Chinese.
She answered with a booming voice as though she were about to quote from the little red book of Maoist sayings. Back straight and at attention, her arm lifted horizontally like a sword when she bellowed the single Chinese word for “East”: 东 （dong).
It wasn’t the way I had been facing, mind you, but it was enough to spin my inner compass back into working condition, which triggered my feet to walk again. Then she bent forward and quickly continued down the street without another word. I thanked her disappearing blue shoulder and bowed head.
A few blocks later, I remembered that I had worn my flip-flop sandals. My feet were bound for blisters.
Note to readers: this is dumb. When navigating a new transit system, wear sensible shoes. Especially in a foreign country.
Then, it started to rain. I had no umbrella. I wasn’t wearing a jacket because the late fall weather had been unseasonably warm. The rain was quite cool, though, and I was quickly shivering.
Soggy and foot sore by the time I reached the next intersection, I looked up to discover I was still not where I expected to be. My heart sank.
And so, naturally, I called Guo Jian.
I wanted sympathy. A verbal head pat. Some encouragement.
After I presented the situation, which was that I was lost and had no money and was caught walking in the rain without proper footwear or an umbrella, do you know what he did? He got angry. He started in with, “Why didn’t you bring an umbrella? You should always bring an umbrella!” and then “Why did you get off the bus? You could have asked the driver for better instructions!” and “Why would you walk if you can’t walk in your sandals?” And by the end, he was yelling into the receiver.
Being yelled at aside, which no one deserves, these types of questions are beside the point. I don’t want to be asked them. I am already feeling pitiful enough that I don’t want to be lectured about obvious future remedies that can’t be implemented in the here and now. Nothing about those questions is helpful in the moment. Let alone the anger. It’s not welcome.
I said all that in one phrase, “This isn’t helpful,” 这个一点都不帮忙 (zheige yi dian dou bu bangmang)” but my direct translation incorrectly used the verb “to help out” or “lend a hand” (帮忙 bangmang). Because this verb implies a person in that role, he was implicated by his absence. I should have said this, “Such words are not useful” 这样的话是没用的 (zhei yang de hua shi mei yong de) but I didn’t understand that subtle vocabulary difference then. So, my language impediment was partly responsible for his further defensiveness.
What I heard next was something like this, “What do you want from me? I can’t come and get you! I’m busy. I’ve got rehearsal in ten minutes and I’m running late and I haven’t even eaten yet. And how am I supposed to know where you are? Are you trying to make me feel guilty or something?”
I wasn’t seeking rescue.
What’s more, I was the one in the unfortunate situation! Was it wrong to expect a little kindness? There he was accusing me of wielding a weapon against his day, his schedule, his feelings!? How did he suddenly become the victim? How do any of my circumstances reflect on him?
His anger made me angry.
Note to readers: Being mad at someone for being mad at you is dumb. It makes things worse. This is what happened that day. It was not a smart day for me, the woman who didn’t want to be rescued.
But under all the superficial response, what bugged me the most is the assumption that I needed rescuing, that I wasn’t capable of leading myself out of the situation, now or in the future. It was insulting.
Note to readers: One’s “manhood” is not measured by one’s ability to rescue women. C’mon.
Needless to say, the conversation ended. It was going nowhere fast. I got off the phone feeling worse than before I had called.
I sat in a random doorway for a while to wait out the rain and feel sorry for myself. I was having a pity party for one.
When the rain ended, I found a nearby bus stop and re-boarded, asking the driver if it went to the subway. It did. They all do, usually. I figured I’d just make my way home by subway, board the one bus number I’d memorized to get me home, and work on the larger mystery of the overall bus system another day.
Later that night, warm and dry in my apartment and having been separated for several hours, Guo Jian came home in a great mood and happy to see me. He hugged me with one arm because he had a surprise for me tucked behind his back. I was supposed to guess which hand it was in, but I was still too heart sore from his ridiculous phone response and I didn’t want to play with him.
He pulled it out anyway. That’s one of the things I fell in love with about him; he is persistent in his playfulness.
It was an umbrella.
A peace offering.
Throughout the following week, from our smattering of conversation about this incident—a technique we’ve adopted where we each say a few comments and then retreat before we get into a big fight—I’ve gleaned the following:
He hears these kinds of words as a call for help. He gets angry because there’s nothing he can do to help me. He’s angry not at me but at the situation existing in the first place. But, because I’m the only thing he can spew to, he takes that anger out on me—the one in need—which isn’t okay. He knows I want him to be gentler, but he also thinks of it as necessary scolding or preemptive advice (like: “you should always bring an umbrella!”) so as to avoid the situation in the future. Scolding to show one’s love is the Chinese way, he says.
I know now that in reaching out for sympathy in those moments, what I really want is just to prolong my own pity party. I tell myself it’s to cushion my heart as I handle a dilemma, but the truth is that I can solve my own problems with or without his warm words, with or without a cushion. Receiving anger in those situations just exacerbates my loneliness in this foreign city, and thus gives me even more justification to feel pitiful. But what’s the point of that?
So, I taught him this sentence: “That sucks, baby.”
I started to text it to him when I knew he was in a frustrating situation. In English.
Eventually, he started to cut and paste this sentence (in English) into text messages to me when he knew that things had gone wrong.
Now, he knows how to say it, too. Sometimes when he starts in on me about something I’m complaining about, in that scolding tone, I just hold up both hands in surrender until he stops. Then I say out loud, like a script, “That sucks, baby!”
Slowly, he’s learning that sometimes I’m just looking for a listener.
He admitted later that it’s way easier to say that one English sentence than to solve the situation for me. He said that with eyebrows that travelled up his forehead in wonder, like it was a revelation. I’m fairly sure I’m guilty of looking at him like he was an idiot when I responded with, “Of course it’s easier. You married a self-reliant woman, remember? I don’t need a superhero; I need a friend!”
I keep forgetting that he’s male. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a guy thing, right?
For myself, I’ve also learned that the pool of self-pity can be side-stepped so that I don’t fall in with a dramatic splash. For instance, I don’t have to phone him in the heart of the drama but, instead, can move forward with the solution and then call when it’s already on its way to being solved. This takes any neediness out of my voice and thus doesn’t trigger his rescue response, but I still get the sympathy I want, even if it’s from my English cue cards.
And all this has made me less lonely.
Later, I learned conclusively that Guo Jian has a terrible sense of direction and an even worse memory for street names, so he could never have found me even if he’d tried. But, that’s the subject for another blog.
I still don’t understand the Beijing bus system fully,
but now I have a bike.
Another surprise gift from Guo Jian.
It’s the ultimate rescue remedy.