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PEOPLE OF CHINA: Beyond enemy lines, an attack of kindness

Updated: May 15, 2019

As I travelled through the land of strained bilateral relations, many episodes with gentle, generous Chinese showed a side of China that the media never projects.

Credit: Depositphotos

"Flight cancelled to Shanghai.” The lady behind the airport ticketing counter waved this message on her translator app for the 5th time. “Why is the flight cancelled?” “When can I get the next flight?” “Can I take another route to get there?” Every question brought the same message in my face and some vigorous shaking of the head from side to side. Towards the end of a 3-week long sojourn in China, the language issue that everyone had warned me about was at its worst.

That Friday night, there was mayhem at the Zhangjiajie airport, whose pronunciation I had only just mastered. A typhoon alert in Shanghai has cancelled all flights. The hordes of Chinese summer-break tourists multiplied by family and children were scrambling to get home before the week ended. Armed with a huge language advantage.

On our last leg, my sister, Dina, and I, had just exited from 2 rigorous days of hiking and trails in the ‘Avatar’ mountains, sapped in 39°C heat. We were desperate to fly out, sink into a bed and fly home the following day.

The CTrip booking app had hung, obviously. We had already sprinted to the information desk, the check-in counters, the ticketing desk and all other counters in between, each pointing to the other. Now, we had nothing else to do but gape at each other helplessly.

“You’ll be stuck here. There are no flights for the next 3 days.” said a voice in English next to us.


“It’s impossible to get a flight now.” the young Chinese man continued. The gravity of the situation flashed before my eyes. We didn’t have a flight to Shanghai. So, we were going to miss our international flight out. We were 2.5 hours away from our last stay. And, it was rather late for 2 girls to venture into an unfamiliar city to look for lodging. We were about to be stuck at the airport, for days maybe, waiting for flights to open up. And, no one seemed to understand a word of what we were saying!

In that moment, in a country of 1.4 billion, we felt really alone.

“We are, in fact, trying to go via another route. Fly to Changsha, then Nantong and then a bus,” he continued. “Can we join you?” Dina asked the next moment. We had never heard of Changsha and Nantong up until that point, but they sounding very promising. A small pause. “Yes.” The answer was calm, cryptic and without hesitation. That’s how Chen Yong, and Jiang Chun Ping & Bian Zhen Yan, his couple friends, took over our lives for the next 16 hours.

2 flights and a bus would reach us into Shanghai at 2:30pm the next day, travelling through the night. A whole 16 hours later than planned. Chen explained the travel plan in slow English, twice. He also wrote it down for us. “You are clear about the route?” My brain wasn’t processing. I just nodded.

They booked us one sector on an app with their credit card [Only Chinese cards work in China]. And, explained the other sector to the translator-dependant lady. It took half hour to sort our tickets, but they were patient. They waited for us so we could go to the check-in counter together. The check-in lady had to send both of us back to the translator-lady to rectify our names that she'd got wrong. Chen chaperoned us, sorted it with her and got back at the end of the line to check-in with us.

This was only the beginning of their generosity. Chen called us over to where they were sitting as we waited for our flight to be announced.

"Don’t worry, we will put you on a bus to Shanghai. Then we will take our bus to Qidong.” He told us that no less than 10 times.

The skies were messed up that night. It was a nervous wait till the first flight was announced an hour after scheduled time. It's only after we passed security that we breathed a sigh of relief and plonked on a row of massage chairs. Without a thought Chen activated my chair with an app, and said, “The Chinese love these chairs. You should relax.

Our first flight took off at 0030am. It was 0120am when we landed in Changsha and about 0215am by the time we got our luggage and moved to the departure area. We only had 3 hours to catch up on any sleep. But Chen and friends, who had managed to check in a the self-check kiosks, chased up officials in a rather empty airport to sort out why it had rejected our passports. They only rested when they had got us seats next to theirs.

Chen woke us up at 0530am for the next flight and queued up for security. Dina and I separated from them to freshen up, getting past security a bit longer than expected. Chen was waiting on the other side of security quite concerned. He whisked us off for breakfast, careful to choose vegetarian dishes that would work for us. He forced us to eat, even though we were not hungry, saying we still had a long way to go still. When I offered to pay, he rubbished the idea with the wave of his hand.

While waiting, Chen mapped where we were staying in Shanghai, the best way to get there and how much it would cost us. In conversation, when I casually asked about Baijiu, the Chinese wine, they jumped out of their seats to buy me one and I had to stop them.

Dina, Chen, Jiang, Bian and I, finally at Nantong. Elated and sleep-deprived.

After landing in Nantong, the trio split cabs just so one of them could travel with us to the bus stop. When I offered to pay for the cab, again the rubbishing hand-wave brushed me off. Chen queued up with us to ensure we get the right bus tickets. All three of them stayed with us till it was almost time for their bus to Qidong. Their goodbyes were about the joy of meeting us and the reassurance of our safety.

Those 16 hours, my sister and I were cared for like adopted children.

On the 3 hour bus drive to Shanghai, I switched roles in my head. I put the three of them in India in a helpless spot where no one could understand them. Would I have helped them? Of course, I would have!

Would I have gone to such lengths to make it my concern and responsibility? My answer didn't make me happy. All I could do was tell myself to become a more selfless and giving person.


My phone was stolen in the heavily crowded East Nanjing Road in Shanghai, from inside my bag. Not much of a generosity story this, given that I lost 14 days worth of photos with it.

I could have gone on without a mobile phone for the next week. I love to go off the radar. But both Dina and I were a bit rattled by the recent airport episode. Travelling in China is truly not easy. No one understands English. No one understands your pronunciation of Chinese. Signs and directions are unclear. Vegetarian food is limited. And, the big one - there is no access to Google - no WhatsApp, Gmail, Chrome, Google Maps, Google Translator, yeah, most of the survival apps.

My next leg being solo, Dina was threatening to pack me in her bag and take me back home with her if I didn't get a standby phone and send her reassuring messages on Skype every day. But precious cash burned on emergency flights, credit cards rendered dud in this land, and my on-the-go travel planning warranted a good phone for cheap.

My staff at The Phoenix were one hell of a rescue team. I was lent one of their personal iPad with VPIN access to block all my accounts. Mason, at the reception, browsed through an online store on his phone and chose a fantastic Mi phone for cheap [after all they are made in China]. When the phone didn't arrive the next day, he offered me an iPhone as standby so I don't feel stuck. Mason called the supplier at regular intervals. He went to an Mi showroom to see if he could pick up the same model for me and return the online one for free. And, he seemed more upset than I, when it hadn't still arrived that night.

Melon & Mason with me, as I took the 1st picture on my newly acquired phone

Next morning, he came in early with good news. The phone was arriving in an hour. He had constantly followed up with them. When I got the team chocolates, Mason was surprised and embarrassed. He apologised profusely for inconveniencing me, when in fact, he was the one stressing and chasing on my behalf.

I can't help but think that most other receptionist's answer to my question, "Where can I get a new phone?" would have been to give an address of a store close by and smile politely.


Caroline and I

I met Caroline at The Phoenix. She accompanied me to the phone service provider, scanned though all the plans, and told me they were all rubbish and offered me her spare sim card instead as she was heading to the US in a couple of days.


In Yangshao, I was about to cycle into town to get dinner. Jo Mo, who I had just met in the cycle stand told me she'll take me, even though she had eaten. She found me a bakery that serves amazing vegetarian food. Then she took me to the best night life experience in China in what I had assumed to be a quiet little town.

Jo Mo and I at Yangshao Town Square


I don't know the names of these people. Because we really didn't speak each other's language.

The lady here saw me lost in this store, when I was struggling to figure which sauce was vegetarian. She rounded up her kids, who also could barely understand English, and helped me with the ingredients of very many sauces.

There was a lot of sign language and charades before she told me what was possible to carry back on a flight. Then she waited patiently for me to make up my mind. She politely asked on her translator, "Will you be ok on your own? I can excuse myself now?"


Having travelled for 3 weeks in China it's easy to see its infrastructure and technological advancement. China has an aggressive approach to development and power, and I am in no doubt that very soon it will conquer the world. But on this trip, China managed to conquer two Indian hearts.

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