The Old Man and the Bus

It’s noon on a Friday morning. My bus was supposed to arrive an hour ago. A freshman from university is pacing in front of the terminal door. In between his steps, I try to make some small talk to pass the time and feel reassured about where our bus will be heading. He tells me his bus was cancelled this morning; he’s trying to make it to a party tonight. We talk a bit more before he starts pacing again. Another woman I talk with says she has class in an hour. The weather is screwing everyone over, from Friday-night ragers to academic pursuits. As for me, I’m just trying to visit home for the weekend.

All the people—going different places, having different things to do—are so fascinating. Unfortunately, because people have places to be, many of the delayed busses made the atmosphere tense. I tried to remain calm, hoping for the best. As I waited in line, an older gentleman approached me, speaking Chinese.

“请问,你说中文吗?” (Qǐngwèn, nǐ shuō zhōngwén ma? Excuse me, do you speak Chinese?)

I was caught a bit off guard, but not as much as the first time this has happened. I replied, “有一点。” (Yǒu yīdiǎn. A little.)

He paused. Then, he spoke again in Chinese, asking if I could help him figure out what line he needed to be in for the Chicago bus. All my language learning seemed to be thrown out the door. I could understand him, but I couldn’t respond. He could see my loss of words, so he pointed to his ticket. I nodded, and asked an employee where to direct the man. Once we figured out the correct line, he smiled, bowed, and thanked me. In Chinese, I told him not to worry about it, and I went back to my line, parallel to his.

After a few minutes, I notice that he still seemed a little nervous. I thought about talking with him again, despite my shyness. I knew I could at least tell him when his bus was going to leave, so I walked over to him and began a small conversation in Chinese. After talking about the departure time, he asked if my parents were Chinese or Taiwanese. I told him my parents are American and white. He seemed surprised but interested. I went on and mentioned that I am currently studying Chinese. He complimented my Chinese and said it’s difficult to learn. He also said his English is not good, but I smiled and told him my Chinese is not good. When the conversation slowed, he wished me a safe trip, and I happily returned the farewell. Later, before boarding his bus, he waved at me and bowed behind the station’s doors. I hope he made it in Chicago safely.

In the end, I was not able to return home. The bus situation was too complicated because of the weather delays. However, meeting the Chinese man was a rewarding experience. It was amazing to be able to express myself in a second language. As an Asian American, it’s often expected by unknowing people to be able to speak an Asian language. I think this assumption is a problem but being able to help the older gentleman gave me confidence in my language learning and identity. I felt empowered for talking with someone who thought I may be able to speak Chinese. Even though I’m not fluent, I had the option of conversing with the man. As an international adoptee and an Asian American, I have been confused and upset when I couldn’t speak Chinese when someone assumed that I could. Looking forward, I know I will always have to work on my language skills, but I also know now that I am capable limited communication with strangers in Chinese.

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2 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Bus

  1. Thank you for your story. You must be fairly young. Mandarin only recently has become one of two de facto Chinese dialects in North America, the other being standard Cantonese. Most of the early immigrants to the US are from the province of Canton, in particular the Pearl Delta region. Most of those Chinese immigrants speak dialects very different from standard Cantonese or Mandarin. Here in Canada it’s the same. The majority of the early Chinese immigrants to Canada speak what is known as the Four Counties dialect (四邑). My folks are from the Four Counties area.

    Currently the Chinese language has three different words for the various “kinds” of Chinese. In pinyin, Zhongguo ren (中国人) is a person who is racially Chinese and a PRC citizen. Hua ren (华人) is a person who is not a citizen of the PRC but who is racially Chinese and kept more or less Chinese tradition and culture, such as speaking a dialect of Chinese. Hua yi (华裔) is racially Chinese person but who has lost most of his connection with Chinese tradition and culture. I find this nomenclature helpful. It’s like the case of the Jews. All Jews, no matter where they live, can be proud of their traditions and culture, which are as rich as ours, but not all Jews are Israelis. Similarly, we Chinese can be hua ren if we chose to be, but not all are Zhongguo ren. In my case, my nationality is Canadian but I’m also hua ren. Thanks again for a moving story.

    • Thank you very much for reading and for your reply! I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I’m also happy you pointed out the differences between 中国人, 华人, and 华裔. I did not know this before — thank you!

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