Thursday, January 6, 2011

All the Help I Need, And Then Some

I hope, as you follow this blog, you see that, every day I am becoming more self-assured in living here. I venture out on my own, I now shop by myself and have figured out how to cook satisfying meals. In short, I’m getting along, more or less.

There are still some things I need help with and sometimes it is downright agonizing to ask for help. Not for my own previously confessed inability to accept help, and certainly not for the lack of anyone helping me… that’s for sure!

Let’s say I’m looking for a bus stop – such was the case just the other day. I just happened to be out in an area that had been familiar to me but due to construction, the bus stop had been moved. I had two choices: keep walking along the road for surely I would find A bus stop eventually or I could ask someone.

In the spirit of learning how to ask for help, I decided to ask someone where I could find a bus stop. Also, this allows me to test my ever-developing language skills.

I approached a young couple who was walking in the opposite direction and asked them where I could find a bus stop. Their immediate answer is ‘I don’t understand you’. I get that a lot when I speak Chinese because many people do not expect me to speak Chinese. Sometimes I have to say things two or three times before they realize I’m talking to them in their own language.

True story: I was shopping at the farmer’s market. One of the vendors from a nearby stall tugged my sleeve and offered up a brilliant proposal: if I bought bananas from her, she would only charge me 1Yuan for each ‘Jin’ (a unit of measure equal to 500 grams). I told her – in Chinese mind you, that I had already committed to purchasing this vendor’s bananas, but next time I would come see her. As I spoke she looked at me horrified and started shaking her head and waving her hands in front of her face, all while backing up and saying “I don’t understand you! I don’t understand you!” Her husband asked her: “What’s not to understand? She’s speaking Chinese to you!”

Apparently she wanted to be brave and approach the foreigner; she just didn’t expect the foreigner to be able to understand her. My appearance alone guarantees misunderstanding, until my conversant listens up and realizes that it is Chinese coming from my mouth, not some foreign language. This happens a lot, both on and off campus.

Back to finding bus stops. I was on my second repetition of my bus stop question when an older gentleman on a bicycle saw us. He immediately got off his bike and asked, in very clearly enunciated English: “What do you need?” I replied in Chinese “I am looking for the bus stop. Can you tell me where it moved to?” He then asked me, again in English: “Where do you want to go?”

Well, I want to go to the bus stop. I can figure things out from there, just please tell me where the bus stop is!

That response would not have been satisfactory. In that person’s mind I am a foreigner, I am helpless, he has to do everything he can to get me all the help I need. He had to know my destination in order to render the proper level of help, in order to assure himself and presumably the rest of China that he had done his utmost to help the foreigner.

On the one hand, it is difficult to mock one who presents such a desire to be helpful. On the other hand, it gets really aggravating to ask for a hand and be given a forklift instead. It is in the genre of that old joke: Why did it take 20 boy Scouts to help the little old lady across the road? She didn’t want to go! Hnyuck, hnyuck, hnyuck!

Once I informed my kindly, overly helpful new friend that I wanted to go to the train station he said I just needed to get on bus number 577, which stops just up the road a ways. I knew all about bus 577 because that is the bus I rode to get to where I was now, but still did not learn where the bus stop had moved to and ended up backtracking to where I knew the next bus stop upstream was at.

Another lesson in help: I had just obtained my bus pass and needed to recharge it. Unfortunately I did not know how to go about it and Sam was out of town. I asked one of my students to please tell me how to go about putting more money on my card.

Jonathan is a student who is a native of Wuhan. If anyone knows how to perform this task, he should, I reasoned. Surely he would tell me how to go about doing it, right? Instead, he stated that he would be delighted to take my card and load it up for me the next time he went to town. I countered that, although I appreciate his offer, if I don’t learn how to do it I will never be able to do it for myself.

It seems the logic escaped him. Or, maybe he felt offended that I was turning down his offer of help. That was actually not the case. I was asking for a specific limit of help, and he was offering to do everything for me. It took several tries to finally make it clear to him that, because I intend to live in Wuhan for the foreseeable future, I must learn how to perform these simple tasks by myself. Otherwise I would have to rely on him to do it for me every time my bus card needed reloading.

He had no problem with that. He said I could call him whenever I needed to. Back and forth we went on the matter; me insisting I learn something and he insisting to be of more service than is actually called for.

I’m not really sure how, but I finally wore him down and he did show me how to load my bus card. Come to find out, it is ridiculously easy; all I have to do is find a certain chain grocery store and tell them how much money I wanted to put on my card. Fork over the money, get my card back and then it is done.

See Jonathan? It was not that hard to tell me about it! But he still had a look about him as though I had gravely offended him, somehow.

You can see why I am so reluctant to ask for help, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment