Communication over tasty noodles
Years ago in September when I first started working in the city of Hangzhou, I had an unexpected encounter at one of my favorite pulled noodle carts.
One night several Chinese soldiers with short buzz cuts and light-green buttoned shirts displaying their military ranks sat down at one of the plastic tables beside me, as I was enjoying my usual bowl of vegetarian pulled noodles.
They asked where I was from. After I told them, the tallest and most muscular man of the bunch said:"I don't like America. Americans don't respect China."
His words unnerved me. I knew Americans weren't universally beloved around the world, but it was the first time anyone had ever admitted it to my face in such blunt terms. On top of it, the admission came from a man trained to fight and defend his nation against other countries, such as my own.
I didn't doubt this man's resolve to safeguard China-there was a razor-sharp look in his dark and steady eyes. Yet he also smiled at me at the same time. This expression of friendliness, though at odds with his response, moved me to continue the conversation, even if my fledgling Mandarin was still on shaky ground.
So I attempted to suggest an alternative explanation. "Americans just don't understand China. If they really knew China, they would like China." It was a very simplified version of my own journey from an outsider wary of China to one who had gradually come to embrace and appreciate it."We just need more international communication."
The man's expression softened and he even laughed in agreement. "International communication! Like now, right?"
Before I knew it, he poured me some of their West Lake beer and we clanged our plastic cups together in a merry toast to guoji jiaoliu, international communication. Never in my life had the words "international communication" sounded so welcoming and warm.
When it started raining, the soldiers insisted on wedging my lilac Emmelle bicycle into the trunk of their sleek black sedan, and giving me a ride back to my residence where they wouldn't let me out of the car until they pulled up to the front doors. The soldiers even carried my bicycle up the stairs of the building for me, placing it almost exactly in the same spot where I parked it every evening.
A feeling of joy washed over me as I marveled in the events of the night, which transformed my impression of soldiers in China. I had often imagined them as hostile, particularly to foreigners like me. Yet here were these men who supposedly disliked America, and they nevertheless showed me, an American, such hospitality.
In retrospect, I realize it was a reminder of how our preconceived notions about other countries and cultures can turn out to be wrong when tested in real-life situations. Over the years I've lived in China, so many of my initial fears about this place would crumble after communicating with people on the ground. A willingness to listen and understand one another can be a wondrous thing.
In a world where so many of us are "so certain" of how the other side really lives and thinks, I feel we all could use a little more international communication and understanding. All it takes is an inclination to talk and smile-and sometimes, you just have to "soldier on" for a breakthrough.
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