Thanks, I Think I'll Stand.
When moving to a foreign city, one of the first things that need tackling is public transportation. In Urumchi, there was never any temptation to get ourselves a car. For one thing we couldn't read the road signs at the time. And in 1988 the traffic and the roads were just being established as the city was going through a booming growth spurt. That "spurt" continued well past our ten years there, and the bus ride that I am about to describe to you would not be typical of today.
Even then in Urumchi, the public transportation ran smoothly. Once you knew the system of getting on a bus, or a mini-bus, or a cheaper and very long bus, (which appeared to be two long buses joined by an accordion looking type of folding heavy rubbery-canvas piece). You simply ask which number buses you need to connect with to get where you need to go, and most of the other passengers are glad to help you at each step of the way. Now they have mini busses, and lots of nice taxies, and some large busses too. But back in 1988, when we arrived and began settling into our new home, one of our friends took the time to explain the bus system. The only buses that year were the large accordion like connected double buses.
For catching one of these buses, there was usually only a ten minute wait, but they were often so crowded that one would have to pack themselves onto the bus, if you could get on at all. The polite, ladies-first approach meant you were waiting for the next bus. It took effort and sometimes the help of fellow passengers to get you onto that bus. And once on, it was your job to smear your way through the people at the door, and well into the bus. If you didn't do this, the folks getting off of the bus would soon be making their way towards the door that you were standing near. And if enough people were planning to get off at the next stop, and you were still standing there, you would be getting off the bus with them. And then you'd have to cram yourself back on with the crowd at that next bus-stop who were waiting to get on.
For the foreigner this could be a rather rough scene. But once the jostling and pushing and tugging subsided, there was usually a chuckle or two from fellow passengers, and no one seemed to really be upset. I saw many a cake crushed, hats trampled and seats won and lost. But an angry outburst was rare. The only times when people showed any anger at the overcrowding was when a pickpocket was having his way with the passengers.
Once on the bus, the test was being able to buy your ticket. The ticket salespeople usually sat right by the door that you just made such an effort to get away from. But the seasoned bus passenger knows that you simply hold out enough change as close to the ticket seller as you can get. If your reach isn't enough, a fellow passenger will usually help you by taking the money out of your hand and passing it along. You needn't worry about getting the proper change back. That is one thing I really liked about the buses. People interacted and generally helped one another. Literally, we were all in this bus trip together.
Another thing I liked about the bus culture in Urumchi we discovered right away because we had a 4 month old baby at the time. On Urumchi buses; elderly people, pregnant ladies and anyone holding a baby would almost immediately be given a seat. The generosity in this surprised us Americans and Europeans. Not that someone would give up their seat, but the seemingly gladness and eagerness for folk to give up their seat for such folk was impressive.
One day, when Ann was holding the baby, she was given a seat. A young lady got up and insisted that she take the seat. When she sat down she needed to adjust her bag and so she handed baby Joseph to me, to hold him until she was adjusted safely in her seat. Well, about two seconds after Joseph was in my arms, a man behind me shot up and pulled me down into his seat, insisting that I take it. I couldn't speak enough of either Chinese or Uighur yet to refuse that seat or explain the situation. I just turned red and thanked him.
So Ann had a seat now, and thanks to holding Joseph I too had a seat. One of our friends who was traveling with us, saw what had happened and laughed. I jokingly offered him Joseph to hold until he had a seat but he was of course, too nice to take advantage of the this impressive courtesy.
In order to get off of a crowded bus there was a system that was very organized considering the rush to get on the bus. As the bus leaves the last stop before the one you want to get off, you begin making your way to the door. If you need to get by someone, you simply say, "Sha-bu-sha?" Which literally translated is like: "Are you getting off or not?" Fortunately it is not considered rude to say it with this grammar in Chinese. If they are not getting off they simply get out of your way and you squeeze by them saying "Sha- bu-sha?" to the next person on your way to the door. Eventually you will get behind a person who is indeed getting off at the same stop. When you ask them "Sha-bu-sha?" they will answer, "Sha!" This is the person you want to get behind. It is now their responsibility to "Sha-bu-sha" the people between them and the door. You can relax and just stay right behind them. And when someone taps you on the back and asks "Sha-bu-sha?" you can assure them that you are "Sha!" They will then follow you.
Warning: If you get in the crowd going off the bus, you will go off the bus.
When the bus does come to your stop, don’t worry about whether or not you’ll get off the bus. Just as you were ingested with a crowd onto the bus, so will you eventually be spewed off of it when it comes to your stop. At least that is the way it was while the city was growing faster than the number of buses could accommodate. It seemed that these buses were always jam packed.
One day though, I remember that the buses were not jam packed. I had decided to take Joseph to "The Children's Park." It was only two stops down the street. We had just moved into our apartment and Ann really wanted to settle in. That meant to me that I should stay out of the way. So I took Joseph and left her to her unpacking. I envisioned her prancing about the apartment, imagining what would go where and how to decorate and etc. I was demonstrating my love for her by taking Joseph and going out to let her do her fun unhindered. How was I to know that she felt abandoned and would rather have done the decorating as a family!? But back then, Ann and I were not only culturally adjusting to life in Urumchi, but also to married life and life as new parents. Lots to learn!
Anyway, there we were out of the house, loving Ann. And so Joseph and I got to the bus stop feeling pretty good. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and everyone seemed out and walking. In fact the buses seemed empty. I later discovered that the winters are so long in Urumchi, that if there is a nice autumn day, people would rather walk. It is as if they know that soon they will be bundled in 4 layers of clothes and heavy coats, and taking buses the few times they would dare to venture out in such cold. But not knowing that, I was glad to get on the bus with Joseph, without having to push or shove.
Most of the bus was empty that day. One or two people were in seats but there were empty seats all around. But I knew that I was getting off in just two stops and so I didn't plan on taking a seat. I would first buy a ticket and then wait by the door. What a beautiful day it was!
As I turned to face the door, a stout older woman pointed to my Joseph and jumped up from her seat, offering it to me. I was so touched! Here this woman doesn't know me at all, and she would give me her seat. It was a lovely but unnecessary gesture. After all, there were empty seats all over the place.
I gestured "No thanks." But the woman seemed insistent to befriend me and Joseph. I thought her to be so kind and I thanked the Lord for bringing me to this lovely city.
But I couldn't take the seat even if I wanted to. Our stop was next. So I gestured again and stepped closer to the door to show that I was about to get off the bus. She seemed to understand and sat down with a smile. I smiled back at her, and she smiled back at me, and pointed to Joseph. Then I faced Joseph towards her and waved his tiny hand. Her eyes crinkled and she smiled and I felt all at once that it was going to be a joy living here.
Then the bus stopped and the doors opened before me. I paused to take in the fresh air and sunshine. Suddenly, I saw something bolting towards me out of my peripheral. I was then knocked so hard from my side that I almost hit the door on the side that I was holding Joseph. Usually, on a jammed bus, I’d have been tensed and holding my ground, ready for any push and jolt; my body protecting my son. But I’d let my guard down of course, as the bus was so empty. "What the!!!..."
Stunned and trying to regain my footing, I got off the bus. It was all I could do to keep Joseph in my arms. I looked up and saw the same woman who had just been offering me her seat. And now she just about killed my baby! The anger in me erased every good thought I had just been thinking about her. Suddenly I felt that this kind woman hated me and had no regard for the life of my child. I felt Urumchi was NOT going to be a nice place to live. And if God had allowed me to learn the language in two weeks, I would have shouted at her: "If you intended to kill me and my son, why did you offer us your seat, you ......!!!!???!"
By God's grace, language learning for me that year went very slowly. Miffed, Joseph and I went into the park and the walk around did me a lot of good. As I talked with God, I started to see that this woman was probably not thinking much about me at all. In Urumchi people culturally get up to offer people with babies their seats. And when those doors open you get on or off before the doors close. And you do it fast and to the new resident, seemingly aggressively. What that woman was doing never had anything to do with me or Joseph. It was culturally the right thing for her to do, both in offering us her seat, and in rushing past us (who were just standing there) to get off the bus. Indeed, the buses at that time would sometimes have closed its doors and taken off before some of the people could get on the bus. On extremely crowded days, it was the only way the buses could cope. They couldn't hold everyone. People just learned to get on while the getting on was good.
I had interjected all kinds of meaning into the woman's actions. Her getting up to offer us her seat meant that she was a kind-hearted person who wanted to show friendship. When she near knocked me flat, she was an ill-willed rude broad who disliked foreigners. In actuality, I have no idea who she was.
I wondered often after that, what my actions were telling people. What could be interpreted as a gesture of friendship in Urumchi, might just be a greeting in Boston. And what might be considered rude for me to do as a host in China might actually be the politest of gestures in the States. We would have to depend much on the Lord's love covering over a multitude of our countless faux pas over the next few years. But likewise God was also reminding us that we would need to overlook a multitude of unintended offenses (offenses without any intentions) which we would perceive in our new city and this new culture. “I’m clueless here, Lord! Please help us out!” was probably our most often prayed prayer.