One might think it reasonable that in a country where freedom is a precious and limited commodity people would be a bit harsh and severe. In our experience, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
From the outside it might appear that way, I suppose. Commuters grinding their way through thick smog on e-bikes and scooters certainly do have a look of grim determination on their faces, but I really don’t think that’s any different than North Americans fighting their way through morning traffic or through the Tim Horton’s drive-thru. Any time we had the opportunity to interact with people directly, we found them friendly, helpful, even warm.
Virtually all our guides were funny, endearing and extremely helpful. Some might argue that they were getting paid to treat us well, but I assure you they went far beyond what their meagre salaries might warrant and far beyond what we had come to expect from guides elsewhere in our travels. And we have nothing but gratitude to the many nameless, smiling faces who served us in restaurants, sold us goods in markets, and offered to help help us when we stood bewildered on street corners.
Restaurant wait staff in particular, who all seemed to be 14 or 15 years old, showed amazing patience, humour, and grace while communicating in sign language with two dim westerners who hadn’t bothered to learn any Mandarin beyond “Xie xie” (thank you). I can only imagine how little these young folks (mostly girls) get paid, yet they applied themselves to their work with enough bubbly enthusiasm to make one think they were attending a birthday party.
Perhaps the most surprising was how helpful people on the street could be. When we were in Shanghai, we were approached by a group of three young girls (university students) from Xi’an who asked us if we needed any help and proceeded to talk with us for five to ten minutes. Certainly one of their goals was to practice their English skills on a couple westerners, but they were also genuinely interested in what we were doing and totally engaging. In the end, they told us what they were going to do next and asked us if we wanted to join them. But here’s the kicker: this didn’t happen just once; it happened twice. A few days later a similar group of three university students, this time from Beijing, saw us standing on a street corner looking at a Shanghai map and stopped to ask if we needed help. Again, they talked to us for ten minutes or so. And again, they told us they were going to see a tea ceremony and repeatedly invited us to join them.
I would love to think that somewhere in Canada there is a group of twenty-something girls who would stop on a street corner to offer help to a bewildered, middle-aged Asian couple, address them in their own language, and then invite the couple to join them in what they were doing. Maybe one such a group exists. But I doubt very much that there are two.