Have you eaten yet – 吃饭了吗?(Short Story: CHINA)

This is the story of a stranger’s kindness to three distressed foreigners on Chinese New Year in Beijing.

On this particular trip to China with some friends. J and I had just spent an evening shopping with AR, our inexhaustible, professional shopper. We were knackered from wandering round Xidan district late at night. We’d been on the go for 14 hours – I think we’d spend the day hiking around Tiananmen Square. We didn’t last long at the shops, all I wanted to do was sit down so we started looking for a taxi as soon as we’d finished our dinner at Pizza Hut. I know – Pizza Hut in Beijing. It wasn’t my turn to choose dinner that night.

It was the day before Chinese New Year and the streets were full. We didn’t find much in Xidan: I’d hardly bought anything aside from furry earmuffs, chrysanthemum tea and lip balm so we decided to avoid the crowds and go back to our hotel in Dongcheng, right near the Forbidden City. There isn’t really a taxi area we could find outside the streets of Xidan so we decided to just walk along the streets in between the traffic and grab one. It doesn’t sound very safe but the traffic wasn’t moving that fast and the roads were packed. We weaved through the 3 lanes of traffic and we were not having any luck.

How could this be? J was getting tired and she needed the bathroom. She always does and it’s always my job to find her one – J is like the 2-year-old and I’m the mummy. Poor baby – I could see she was getting really fed up. I considering trying to pay someone to let us have or at least share their taxi. Maybe if it wasn’t Chinese New Year, and -5 degrees…

Coca Cola wishes you a Happy Chinese New Year

Finally, after 20 minutes J and AR found a taxi. I ran over and jumped in the back with AR, J hopped in the front. It was an unusual taxi – it was dark so I didn’t see the colour or the sign but I did notice it was a late model Toyota whereas most of the taxis in Beijing are Xiali, a Chinese brand, or old Citroens or something. Oh well, I guessed it must’ve been a posh taxi and hopped in the car after J and AR.

AR was sitting up in the back like giving this driver his orders (in English) like the Queen of Sheba: “Now look here, we want to go to our hotel immediately. Thank you.” Then she tried to have a bit of a sleep in the back seat. No such luck: the driver was looking quite bewildered and was saying something along the lines of “Who the hell are you? What do you think you are doing in my car?” in Chinese.

Beijingers can be quite brusque sometimes and I just assumed he was stroppy because it was late and the traffic was heavy. I gave the him our hotel card but he said he couldn’t take us there – the bloody cheek! Well, I figured that any Beijing taxi driver has a price and at that time of night money was no object. Seeing as it cost us about $8 to get there from the other side of town I offered $20. He shook his head. Sticking a thick stack of money in his face seemed to have no effect. $30? $40?! He just laughed, shook his head and said something I didn’t understand in Chinese and drove ahead with the traffic. This didn’t make any sense: AR and I asked J, sitting in the front, if this taxi even had a metre. Nope, nothing.

OK. Now I had had enough – I asked J how she knew that this car was even a taxi. She didn’t: “I just kind of stood in front of the car and it kind of stopped so I assumed that he…”

So we had hijacked some Chinese man’s car and were shoving money in his face whilst barking orders at him in English.

Brilliant.

It’s moments like these that I find myself without my phrase book. My Chinese was rather limited to say the least, so I tried my best to explain the situation:

“Mr. Man, I am really sorry. You isn’t taxi, I understand but I’m lost. Our hotel please. Please! This is money. I give you money.”

After laughing quite hard for about 2 minutes, this was what I understood of his reply:

“Blah, Blah, Blah Miss. I don’t know the hotel. No money, thanks.”

He pulled into a side street, parked his car and got on the phone. I assumed he was calling someone for directions, J thought it might be our hotel on the phone, AR was muttering something about rape. As I didn’t understand the conversation I asked who it was. His friend was coming. He was here to meet a friend, this is why he drove to Xidan.

Well, this sent AR right off and the crazed muttering escalated into talk of us “all killed…dead! Rape! In a ditch… gang bangs… in the papers… my poor mother…” so J tried to comfort her by telling her that if he tries anything, she’ll just stab him with the car keys – instant death, no worries!

I think she felt a lot better, so did I – we were safe in the knowledge that J was a natural killer. I choose only the finest travel companions as you see.

I didn’t know what to do so I put $40 worth of Renminbi on his lap and asked him to spare us and perhaps take us home? Or just let us out of the car? He laughed even harder than before and gave me back the money. It was at this point that he opened his wallet to get a parking ticket and J noticed that he had about USD $3000 cash in there. He probably didn’t need my $40 then. I apologised for my embarrassing behaviour and ridiculous friends who thought he was a taxi driver. I told him we’d leave him alone. The man, whose name was Fang, told his that we were his guests and he would take care of us. He was quite adamant and I’d had enough by this stage so I just let him take us wherever he was going.

We waited for 3 minutes and his friend showed up – a well-dressed young ladyl with shopping bags – Fang was on a date!

I would have given anything for a dictionary and a translator to let him know how ashamed I was of myself for abducting him on his date. The girl was rather surprised to see us and she and Fang got out of the car with our hotel name card and set about trying to find someone to show them us home. I explained that the hotel was right near the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park, which I thought was famous but he didn’t seem to know it, neither did anyone else. Fang and his girlfriend kept asking me questions. I only understood “Blah, blah, blah “hotel”… blah, blah, blah “hotel” is it?” so I told them:

“Wo míngbái: deng, deng, deng ‘jiudiàn’… Deng, deng, deng jiudiàn ma?”

Well, they both nearly split at the seams with laughter. I was getting sick of all this laughing at our expense, but they were being kind. Fang finally found out how to get us home but, being such a kind and hospitable gentleman, he decided to first give us a night tour of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Central Chinese Television Tower and “Hu Jintao’s castle” as he called it. We were very tired and almost nodding off in our seats but Beijing was so pretty at night. Fang had found our hotel before taking us on this tour and he invited us out for dinner with his date. he asked us:  Nimen chifàn le ma?

I was kind of in love with Fang for being so nice but I remembered that he was on a date and, in Chinese culture, it’s polite to ask  Chifàn le ma? (“Have you eaten yet?”) whenever you meet friends or whenever someone comes to your home. The polite answer is always Wo Chifàn le (“I’ve eaten”) even if you haven’t. Although I knew all this, they did seem pretty enthusiastic about taking us out and I would’ve liked to go along.

It was very late. They were, still, on a date with three foreign girls tagging along and we’d just had dinner… so we decided to decline. We went back to the hotel and gave them our number and told them both we’d love to take them out to thank them so how about meeting us in the hotel bar tomorrow? I told them to call our room and I’d meet them with my Chinese books. Fang gave me his number and told us to call if we needed him . I wish I’d carried it with me a few days later when J and I were stuck again at a dead end in some slum at night with everyone staring at us as they emptied their chamber pots.

Well, that’s it, really. Fang was just a nice man who decided to give up his evening during his New Year break to help out three cold, distressed and kind of rude foreign girls. I’ll always be grateful and people like him are the reason I love to travel: I can learn so much from people in other places. On that night I learned that there are amazing people everywhere, even strangers in Beijing traffic jams. We miss out on the best things in life when we are too cynical.

Perhaps this is a lesson for me to be kind to strangers, just as Fang was kind to us.

2 responses to “Have you eaten yet – 吃饭了吗?(Short Story: CHINA)

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