Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Benign Neglect

“Jing'an Temple?” I ask the bus driver. He nods, so I climb aboard.

“I'll let you know when we get to Jing'an Temple,” says the woman behind me.

I know where to get off, but I thank her for her kindness. We chat briefly, and I find she graduated from Shanghai Normal University, where I'm now on sabbatical. But then her phone rings, and that's the end of the conversation.

In the city center where the tourists go -- the Bund, Nanjing Road, the City God Temple -- hawkers swarm like flies on every laowai they spot.

“Watch? Wallet? DVD?”

I walk past as if he weren't there.

“What you want?”

To be left alone.

“Hello sir!” he calls out to me.

A dozen paces later, a woman approaches. “Watch? Wallet?”

But here in the suburbs, the people treat me the way they treat everyone else -- with benign neglect. In a city of 20 million people, you just can't say hello to everyone.

They're not callous, though. I've witnessed many acts of kindness toward strangers, like the one I received on the bus to Jing'an Temple.

So when a gentleman approaches me in Kangjian Park, I know he's not trying to sell me a fake Rolex. He's just curious what a foreigner is doing in his neighborhood.

I tell him my story, and we chat a while. He compliments me on my Chinese, I compliment him on his English, and then we say goodbye.

We'll probably never see each other again. But if we do, we'll surely say, “Ni hao!”

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