The Kindness of Strangers

Qingdao man takes a break from blowing bubbles with his son to teach us how to fly a kite.

A Qingdao man takes a break from blowing bubbles with his son to teach us how to fly a kite.

We were walking from the Tsingtao Brewery to Taidong Shopping Street. Beer Street fizzled out after the giant neon rainbow arch anchored by beer bottle sculptures on either side of the road, and there was still no sign of Taidong shopping street. We stopped two young women to ask for directions. I showed them the street name in characters on my phone and they conversed in Chinese, studiously examining my phone before typing into theirs.

A pair of young men approached and joined in. One spoke fairly good English, but his manner was as oily as his skin, and neither XX nor I felt inclined to trust him when he said, “I am going there, follow me.” When we hesitated, the girls asked why we wanted Taidong. As soon as I answered, “Shopping,” they both pointed with confidence in the direction the man indicated. So we followed him and his quiet friend, and had a nice conversation. They were students of at the Oceanic Institute of Science and Engineering or some such (I had read that over two thirds of marine scientists in China are based in Qingdao). They marveled that my daughter was actually from Qingdao. Then they melted into the crowd as we entered a road as wide as a freeway that barely allowed the passage of vehicles through the pop-up tents of myriad vendors.

The very next day we were walking to Underwater World. We decided to turn left one street early, which of course resulted in our walking in the completely opposite direction from where we meant to go. We explored the university campus, sighed over a street lined with bakeries (too soon after breakfast) and soaked up the atmosphere of a quirky little neighborhood that resembled nothing more than the hill town from Kiki’s Delivery Service. But at last we arrived at a five-way intersection at the top of a hill with no idea which side of the hill to follow back down to reach the ocean. We seemed to be at a freeway off ramp, and all the taxis that came off the freeway were in use. Finally we gave up and decided to backtrack.

Lost in a quaint Germanic-Asian neighborhood.

Lost in a quaint Germanic-Asian neighborhood.

Partway down the hill we reached another starfish intersection, and asked a woman selling fruit which way to go. We showed her our map and pointed to the Chinese label for Underwater World. Most people are pretty good at communicating with gestures and single, simple words, but some verbal types just can’t adjust. Rather than point at one of the roads leading away from her stall, she kept trying to talk to us. Then she called over a couple more people, all of whom insisted on trying to get us to speak Chinese. Finally a man made the “time out” sign with his hands and walked off. We thought he was going to get someone who spoke English, but as the minutes stretched out and my daughter got more anxious, I figured maybe the time-out hand signal means something else in China. We wandered off down the hill.

At the next major crossroads we took heart: it was a street we recognized, with a clear downhill direction. As we were about to cross, the man from the produce stand drove up. He had left his stand to go get his car! We hopped in and he drove us to the ticket booth for Underwater World. We never did manage to form a Chinese sentence he could understand, but at least we knew how to say “Thank you,” in Chinese.

Throughout our time in Qingdao, we were consistently met with strangers who went out of their way to help us. It started to feel natural for people we had never seen before and would never see again to do us favors that we would hesitate to ask from friends back home. We would certainly never go to such lengths for tourists in our own home town. All of these random acts of kindness guaranteed that we would forever think of Qingdao with love, but nothing could have prepared us for the gift we received from a young woman named Lily.

Of course that’s a story for another day.

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