Friday, November 12, 2010

Wo Bei Ni

 In re-working my manuscript for the millionth time, I came across this experience I had during my first year in China. Although it happened ten years ago, the experience still turns up the corners of my mouth. See if it does the same for you.

The early bus to the school is much quieter this morning and I welcome the change. I thought I'd get into work early today and apparantely one of the Chinese teachers thinks so too. He nods and smiles as he gets on the bus, shaking out his umbrella. We chat for a few minutes along the bumpy ride. I've seen him around campus before, and it's obvious to me that he's at a point in his life where he's at peace and isn't trying to keep up with anyone. His calm manner puts me at ease as we chat and before I know it, we're at the stop, having conversed in Chinese the whole way.
We're the only people getting off at thirteenth street today. It's the road that leads directly to the back gate of the school and usually this is the most convenient way to go. Today, though, I'm wondering what we both were thinking. It has been pouring rain all morning, and all the water seems to have accumulated on these few streets. We look at each other and laugh all the while looking around wondering what we're going to do. Funny, yes, but we do actually need to get to work. We decide the other teachers must have taken another bus today, probably the one that leads to the front of the school.

We look around at a few other streets to see if the water is more manageable, but it's bad everywhere, with at least a foot of water in every direction. I'm a bit nervous, all of a sudden, because this sweet guy is talking to me and I really don't have enough Mandarin to understand his plan. He must have been speaking much more slowly on the bus because everything was clear then. He's making all these gestures, talking a mile a minute and my only reaction is to begin walking through the puddle. I figure there is really no alternative and water on my pants will eventually dry.

Before I can take a step, though, this man grabs my arm and tells me to wait. Wait. That much I understand, but wait for what? He gingerly takes off his shoes and socks, putting his socks into his pockets. He rolls up his pants and holds his shoes in one hand. Getting the hint, I start to do the same but he stops me.

"Wo Bei Ni", he says.

"Shen me?" I say weakly.

I know he has just said "I back you" but what exactly is he talking about? Before I can think this through he is in front of me, trying to get me to climb on his back. Did he mean he would carry me? All of a sudden, he is trying to lift my legs and I can do nothing but laugh and back away.
"Impossible!" I tell him. "Bu ke neng!"
He is so insistent and I tell him that although I appreciate his offer, there is no way I'm jumping on this 50-year-old guy's back and letting him trudge through the water carrying me, my bag, and his shoes. This man will not take no for an answer, though, so I finally give in and as carefully as I can, thinking light thoughts, I climb on his back. He carries my over-stuffed backpack and I carry an umbrella trying to cover the both of us.
He walks, ever so slowly, each step as careful as the one before. We don't talk. We seem to have an understanding. I'm holding my breath, sending him good thoughts. He just walks and I look straight ahead wondering how on earth I ended up here. In China, on this man's back. And that brings me to really worrying about his back, and how he's going to feel tonight after work.
His muscles will be feeling the weight of his gesture then. What if he goes home and tells his wife,

"It was the strangest thing. I offered to carry the foreigner's backpack but she misunderstood and jumped on me. I didn't want to insult her so I carried her all the way to school!"

What if I've completely misunderstood him? I'm thinking through all the possible intended meanings for "Wo Bei Ni' when suddenly, we're there.
He gently bends down and I slide off his back. We exchange a look that only he and I understand. A knowing smile, almost a laugh. I'll never look at him the same way again. I figure the only thing I can do at that point is properly introduce myself. He does the same. We shake hands, wave, and walk in different directions. And I'm sure we're both smiling.

We had such a fantastic time on our recent trip to Utah.  Our kids have grown up in sub-tropical Guangzhou, so the concept of autumn w...