Thursday, July 16, 2009

It Took Three Young Chinese Girls

At some point, probably many months after we moved to Beijing, I noticed this rickety bus snaking its way through the narrow streets of Saoziying. This little bus intrigued me, not only because it struck me as an improbable means of travel through crowded streets that are not much more than alleyways, but also because it was not clear to any of us just what purpose this bus serves. Who rides this bus? Are they workers using it to get to and from their jobs? Or is it something altogether different and unexpected?

Fast forward to this summer. One of the big holes in Julie's "resume" has been a lack of friends who are Chinese. Sure, Julie has spent a lot of time with girls from Italy, Nepal, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and the United States. But making Chinese friends? That has proven to be, to say the least, difficult. You see, Chinese kids are essentially "learning machines." They go to school all day, and then study all night. As for the weekends, there are more classes and enrichment activities to attend to. It has struck us as remarkable the lack of any visible presence of children between the ages of five and seventeen in the neighborhoods of China.

Then, a week or two ago, school let out for the summer. Without warning, there they finally were, the missing generation of China's population. Many of these boys and girls stared at us as we walked through the neighborhood, like we had just arrived or something. And then it struck us. When we settled in last year, these kids were heading back to school. A year of their lives have since gone by, and they didn't even know there have been waiguoren living right in their midst. On one level, this is easy to understand. There are no questions about the Balla family on the gao kao (the national examination that determines children's academic futures), so why should they pay any attention to us? On another level, though, this is surely an opportunity missed, the chance to spend good quality time with peers from a foreign country. Why spend all of that time reading about America, when you can experience life through the eyes of an actual American?

But enough of that. Back to the bus. Over the past few weeks, Julie has become friends with a trio of Chinese girls. Every morning, these girls ring our doorbell. If Julie is working on her lessons, she doesn't answer the call, knowing it would be too difficult to explain the foreign concept of home schooling across the language barrier. Such nonresponsiveness, though, does not deter these girls, who are bent on making the most of their limited vacation time. They simply walk around to the other side of our building, stand below the balcony, and scream Julie's Chinese name out, over and over again, “白依柔!白依柔!” Just this morning, we noticed that the girls had written a note to Julie, in chalk, telling her they will come back later to look for her.

One of the girls' priorities has been to take Julie to the mall. (Some things, like shopping, are universal, aren't they!?) They told Julie that her parents were welcome to come along. (Now that kind of attitude is certainly not universal!) They also told Julie that they would take her on the free, local bus. There it is! The answer to the riddle I have been puzzling over for months! Yes, the bus operates out of the mall, rumbling through local neighborhoods in search of potential customers. Who knew?

With this little mystery solved, I only wonder how many other inscrutable features of local life would have been exposed had the children of Yan Bei Yuan been out and about all year long. As is usually the case, there are these barriers that, for some reason, naturally exist between Desi and I and the adults of our community. It is through our children that oftentimes these barriers are broken down. Sure, finding out just where a rickety little bus goes is not going to bring about better relations between China and the United States. But this episode, I think, reveals how hard it can be to forge the kinds of cross-cultural relationships that can lead us to lives of mutual understanding.



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