When you live as a foreigner in China, sometimes you can’t help but feel like a child. Maybe it’s because you can’t speak the language — or stumble through it, like a toddler playing with sounds and words. Maybe it’s because you don’t read the signs, and feel as lost as a little kid, abandoned by their parents in a strange world. Maybe it’s the culture, where you commit the sort of faux pas that your parents would have admonished you about after visiting grandma’s house.
And, maybe, it’s because you depend on your Chinese friends and lovers so much, that they become your caregivers all over again.
When my left ankle was put into a cast — after clumsily spraining it outside a shopping center in Hangzhou — the hospital had no crutches, and no protective sheath that would allow me to walk outside. I had leaned on my Chinese friend Chris for a lot of things before — advice, Chinese lessons, help at the hospital — but now I leaned on him, physically, just to leave the hospital grounds.
Yet, leaning could only take me so far. I lived on the 7th floor of an apartment building that had no elevator. I couldn’t ascend the stairs, and I certainly couldn’t expect Chris — who was shorter and skinnier than I — to carry me there.
“Wait here for a minute.” Chris sprinted over to the dormitory at Zhejiang University, where he was studying for a master’s degree in Chemistry. Minutes later, he returned with a tall, sturdy classmate of his named Xie.
Xie is the same character in the word xie xie, which means thank you. There couldn’t be enough thank yous for the way he selflessly carried me — on his back — all the way to the school gate, and then all the way up seven flights of stairs, to my apartment. Or the way he and Chris made lunch for me before they left.
But not even their generosity prepared me for the childlike experience in my apartment. My kitchen had a large step up into it that meant I couldn’t cook for myself. I had a hard time reaching the water machine because it was so far outside of my bedroom. And I couldn’t open or close the gate sitting in the first half of the stairs — built by my neighbors, Tang and Zhang — without risking another fall.
So I had to rely on my friends, once again. I called on my closest Chinese work colleagues, Caroline — who also acted as a matchmaker between John and I — and Swallow — who had been my unofficial therapist when I’d just started dating John. They brought over Ayi Zhong, the woman who cleaned my apartment once a week, to help reorganize it into a disabled-friendly place to live.
Of course, the one person I wanted to lean on most was John, my Chinese boyfriend. I’d tried all afternoon to call him, getting busy signals or no response. But finally, I reached him that evening, with my surprising news. But not surprising, he came back to Hangzhou the next day, to start caring for me.
John, however, had to return to Shanghai for a week of final exams, after the New Year. He arranged, for a price, to have Ayi Zhong come in each evening to make my dinner and lunch — as if she was babysitting me while the parents were away.
It’s amazing how one accident can turn you into a dependent all of a sudden. Yet, as I faced two weeks of recovery, confined to my apartment, I was grateful — to know I had people in China I could lean on.
Did you ever have to lean on your friends in China — or in another foreign country — because something made you helpless, like becoming a child all over again?
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.