Chapter 35: The Wrong, Painful Step

Shoe stepping into the water
Sometimes, you lose your way in China, and one small step can change your life.

When you live in a foreign country like China, it’s easy to get lost, to stumble, to make a wrong turn. But the wrong turn — or step — can cost you your time, your health or even, your trip to Hong Kong.

On the evening of December 28, 2002, I took the wrong step outside of a shopping center in downtown Hangzhou. It was the kind of place I shouldn’t have even been — a dark alley right beside the center, littered with the sort of unpatched, gaping potholes that just didn’t match the gleaming glass facade of the new building. I’d already lost my sense of place on the way there, when I missed the closest bus stop and had to walk 15 minutes to backtrack to the shopping center. The dark and disorientation merged together, right there in that alley. And then it happened — one step sent me tumbling face down to the concrete, sending a sharp pain through my left ankle. I was so stunned that, for a few moments, I couldn’t even stand. But I finally did get up, because no one was there to rescue me.

No one was there to shield me, either, from the perils of being alone on an evening in China.

“Hello?” shouted a bicycle-style rickshaw taxi that relentlessly tracked me down the street, like a desperate stalker. I tried to trot down the road a little faster, and look for a way to cross and lose this man.

“Hello, where are you from?” blurted out a young twentysomething Chinese man, standing in front of the shopping center. I mumbled that I was an American — which wasn’t such a smart answer. “I’d like to learn English from you. Let’s make friends!” He smiled at me, as if friendship was like an instant green tea package — just open, pour and enjoy. But I wasn’t living in an instant world of smiles that evening, as my left ankle reminded me with every step.

“Sorry, I have to go — I’m not feeling well.” I flashed a brief smile and hobbled across the street to escape these men. It wasn’t the first time I’d been followed by a rickshaw taxi, or propositioned by an aggressive English student. Yet, suddenly, I felt so exposed, like a wounded quarry in a place I didn’t belong. I quickly flagged down a taxi, had a foot bath, and then put myself to bed, hoping rest would vanish the pains of the evening — physically and mentally.

Yet, the next morning, the pain lingered in my left ankle, now sore and swollen. With John, my Chinese boyfriend, still away in Shanghai, I could only do the next best thing — call my Chinese friend, Chris — who was also my part-time Chinese tutor — and ask him to help me to the hospital.

I knew something was wrong when Chris approached me outside the doctor’s office with such a grave face. “It’s a little serious,” he said to me, while I was sitting on a bench to await the results.

But nothing is certain until the die is cast — or the cast is cast. After Chris brought me back to the doctor’s office, the doctor began applying a case to my left ankle. “You’ll have to stay at home for at least two weeks, and maybe a month,” the doctor advised me.

That’s when I knew it: my trip to Hong Kong, from December 30 until January 2 — when I was supposed to reunite with my aunt and uncle — disappeared quietly into the hard white plaster around my foot.


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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