Our bus pulled up to the stop. It was a cold and foggy — a typical winter day in Shanghai.
Though rain was not falling, the evidence of a recent storm appeared in puddles haphazardly marking the navy marble tile. A crowd of Chinese citizens hung around a curb, jackets clenched while waiting for the bus.
The cold, wet people were sharply contrasted by a large jewelry advertisement hanging at the base of a nearby skyscraper. Lavish gold and pink hues draped a radiant, smiling, American model. My friends and I departed the bus and walked into the building.
As we walked through the inside of the WanDa Plaza Mall at Wujiaochang, many facets seemed wholly familiar to me. On my left I noticed a KFC, and next to it was a Pizza Hut — which, one of our instructors had told us, was a preferred destination for dates in China. Escalators and elevators surrounded my periphery and I walked through lilac-colored halls as happy-go-lucky songs emanated from unseen speakers.
Though I felt partly accustomed to the traditional aspects of the international mall, parts of WanDa were undoubtedly Chinese. The four of us made our way up an aforementioned escalator, hungry for a late lunch. I walked in line with my roommate, a kid from Barcelona who I had met an hour beforehand. We had become sidetracked heading toward Walmart to pick him up some shampoo and cooking utensils.
And as they so often do, our stomachs got the best of us.
We found our way into a cafeteria typical of most public eating locales in Shanghai. In somewhat of a homage to traditional street carts, each station of the cafeteria had only a couple of people working in front of an open grill, prepared to fry up food on the spot.
As the most fluent Chinese speaker in the group I found a dish that looked fairly conservative and ordered four of it; we paid around two U.S. dollars per meal and began to look for a place to sit amongst the crowded benches.
We circled the large cafeteria once, and then once more. The hall was filled with Chinese people milling about, ordering food and conversing with friends. I saw no foreigners other than our lonely group. As we were preparing to circle the cafeteria the second time, an elderly woman noticed my helpless expression and beckoned for me to sit next to her. We walked over to her bench, though there did not seem to be enough room for all of us. When she saw that we would not fit, she stood up and offered me her seat. Try as I could to deny her, the invitation had been given and I was powerless to deny. So, I sat down and we all squeezed onto the bench.
As my companions began to chow down on their rice bowls, I offered my thanks to the woman who had given me her seat. She waved me off, but we squeezed out enough room for her to join us on the bench. Typical of many elderly men and women I’ve seen in China she was very small, simply dressed and seemed teeming with wisdom. Excited at the opportunity to practice my nascent Chinese, I asked her where she was from. She told me she was originally from Shanghai — an occurrence that is becoming more rare with the recent influx of workers moving from the countryside to the cities.
I asked my new friend what she was eating, and she told me a word that I don’t remember. It looked like a mix between a dumpling and a bun, two Chinese staples that have become some of my favorites in the past month. Noticing my interest, she smiled and offered me a taste of what she was eating. Just as I started to refuse, she lifted a bun-dumpling with her chopsticks and placed it in my bowl. I had to smile at the pure kindness of her demeanor; I dug in with enthusiasm, experiencing a sweet, pork-filled confection far different from what I expected.
As I enjoyed the present she had just given me, the elderly woman told me I reminded her of her grandson. Parallel with my current adventure, her daughter’s son is currently studying abroad in America. Similarly to my own father and grandfather, she has been relegated to intermittent contact with a member of her family. I sympathized with her: living 16 hours away from my family has made it far too difficult to connect with those I need to connect with most.
I smiled, told her I understood, and she gave me another bun-dumpling.
Here in Shanghai, so far away from the social norms I’ve understood as normal, I had made a friend.
Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.