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Misadventures in China
Making friends in far-flung places
By Jordyn Dahl | NO. 47 NOVEMBER 19, 2015

View at sunset of the Yangtze River that flows through Fengjie, a small town in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality (JORDYN DAHL)

Many of my Western friends tell me that they don't find the Chinese to be very friendly. They generally don't smile at strangers or say "hello" in the elevators like we frequently do in the West. Some construe this as being unfriendly or insincere, and it is by some Western standards, particularly American. I have found this notion to be otherwise false. I may not get smiled at by passersby on the street, but the locals in every city I've visited have always been willing to lend a hand, point me in the right (or sometimes wrong) direction and recommend a good dish. In one particular instance, a local took me under his wing and went above and beyond to help a lost traveler.

The day started innocuously with a bus ride from Chongqing to Fengjie, a small river town in Chongqing Municipality along the Yangtze by the first of the Three Gorges. I came to Fengjie to take one of the smaller barges to Badong, another river town that sits at the mouth of the gorges. The goal was to take a handful of buses and ferryboats from town to town along the river, rather than the three-day cruise that usually goes through the gorges at night.

I hopped off the bus and started walking along the main thoroughfare toward the port and a nearby hotel I read about. At least, I thought I was walking to the port. I stopped on the sidewalk to consult a map after about 15 minutes of searching, and a man in his 50s approached to ask where I was going. I later found out he saw me get off the bus and thought I was lost. Good guess.

While I explained my mission, another man-Mr. Qu-joined us. They jabbered away in the local dialect for a few minutes before Mr. Qu took me to a nearby gas station, flagged down a minibus before I could protest, and paid my fare even quicker. We chatted with the locals on the bus, all of whom seemed to know Mr. Qu. I had made friends with the local celebrity.

A few minutes later we arrived at the port to find the windows shut for the evening. Mr. Qu glanced at the board, reread it a couple of times before turning to give me the bad news: No more boats to Badong. But no matter, he said, I could catch a bus in the morning instead.

At this point, Mr. Qu had been helping me for close to an hour. I tried to convince him to go home to his wife, whom I was sure was wondering where he was. But he wouldn't have it and told me it was time to find a hotel. Mr. Qu hailed a cab and we were off to the other side of the city where life was bustling with locals buying fireworks and lighting lanterns for the holiday. We entered the first hotel, a bright lobby with columns and kitschy paintings. No rooms left. We went to another with the same result. Finally, the sixth had one available for close to $100-far outside of my budget. Doesn't matter, Mr. Qu said. He had an idea.

Mr. Qu told me about his job at a famous Chinese liquor manufacturer while we walked to a different neighborhood. He suddenly stopped outside a building, announced we had arrived and walked in. I looked up to see "Police Station" in big, bold letters. What on earth were we doing here?

Five handsome young men sat behind the counter, bored on a quiet night with the same bewildered expression I'm sure was written on my face. Mr. Qu told them my predicament: The city has no empty hotel rooms for a foreigner. Can they help? The officers snapped to, crowding around a computer to look at the list of hotels. One after another they called what must have been every hotel in the city. At last, one stood with a look of triumph and told Mr. Qu and I to follow him.

He led us outside, unlocked his police car and ushered us into the back. Five minutes later, I climbed out of the car to a stunned crowd staring, surely wondering what kind of trouble the foreigner had caused. I was wondering this myself. The hotel was expecting me and quickly scanned my passport and got my room key. The officers and Mr. Qu accompanied me to the room to make sure it was up to snuff. I hastily assured them it was fine, embarrassed at the trouble I had caused and thanked Mr. Qu for all of his help. He informed me he would meet me at 6 a.m. sharp downstairs to take me back to the bus station. I tried to argue, realized it was futile and agreed to meet him.

The next morning, Mr. Qu deposited me at the bus stop, waving as it drove off to the next stop.

The author is an American studying in Beijing

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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