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A friend in need is a friend indeed, wherever you are

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-02 10:43
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The Chinese people are a friendly mob and are quick to assist baffled newcomers in this foreign land on the far side of the world.

When I first arrived in China, I had to have my hand held by new friends who guided me through language barriers so I could organize my basic daily needs. My limited comfort zone made the world's most populous nation very small.

In those first weeks, I could not go to a Chinese bank to start a new account or order a home-delivered pizza without the help of a local. I couldn't even eat at a local restaurant unless the menu had pictures. I tried a few times, but would always end up with pig's stomach.

A shopping excursion to the supermarket was one big puzzle with all those Chinese characters on the labels.

"Is this cooking salt, table salt, white pepper or maybe sugar?" "Is this vinegar or baijiu (white liquor)?" "Can I buy two toilet rolls or do I have to buy this pack of 18?"

I believe in karma, so when I returned to my hometown in Sydney, Australia last year, I had the chance to return the favor and help a Chinese man find his way in my homeland on the bottom side of the world.

I met Dr Feng walking along a beach. I guessed the cheerful fellow, aged in his late 60s, was Chinese and approached him with a big "ni hao".

He appeared gobsmacked because he had been staying in Sydney for more than a month and it was the first time one of the locals had conversed with him in his native tongue. I had studied Chinese for two years, so I could communicate for at least 20 minutes before my brain started to ache.

Dr Feng and his wife were visiting their daughter, who had just had a baby. Every morning, he would go for a swim and then walk along the beach, just like he did in his hometown of Qingdao, Shandong province.

From that "ni hao", we became language buddies, and we made an odd couple on that sunny Sydney beach.

The typical Sydney beach scene is pretty relaxed and involves bikinis, boardshorts, whopping big beach towels and lifeguards. And there we were, talking Chinese and becoming better friends. Like any newcomer, he was puzzled by all things new.

He was convinced he had to go to Chinatown, in Sydney's CBD, to buy groceries to cook Chinese food. From our beachside suburb, Chinatown was an hour's train ride. When I discovered what he wanted to cook, I realized many of the ingredients could be bought locally, a three-minute walk away.

Feng had never ventured beyond his comfort zones, which were his daughter's apartment and the beach.

So I walked him up to the main shopping area, and we found a greengrocer, who had most of the ingredients he needed - carrots, beans, spinach, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and the rest. This fresh-food market even had Chinese cabbage.

"Really?" he said. "Yes, really," I replied. "We have the same vegetables that the Chinese have."

Then I took him to a butcher and pointed out pork, beef, chicken and lamb.

He still needed spices, so we went to the main supermarket, and wandered around the aisles until we found the Asian cooking section. The packets of spices had English labels, so I pulled out my electronic Chinese-English translator and Dr Feng soon discovered what he needed.

At the end of our excursion, we walked to the local railway station and obtained a timetable so he could go to Chinatown at a later date.

But what we both discovered was that anywhere could be Chinatown if you knew how to look.

But most importantly, we realized that sometimes, we all need friends to guide us through life's interesting journey.

"Next time you're in China, you must visit Qingdao and I'll show you around and return the favor to you," Dr Feng said.

China Daily

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