Speeding along in a taxi on a busy Saturday night, I felt giddy as I drank in the unfamiliar sights of Beijing: parks full of enthusiastic dancers moving in rhythm, groups of three or four atop small motorcycles weaving through the traffic, a nonstop array of neon signs. I was in total bliss except for simultaneously wondering if my first night in Beijing was about to end with my going to jail. The concern about kidnapping didn’t come until about an hour later.
A few months earlier, I had jumped at the chance to go to Beijing for a month to earn a certificate as an English teacher. The 12-hour flight was exhausting, but my spirits were high. The trouble started at the Beijing airport when I walked into the terminal. My instructions were to go to Starbucks to meet my contact and be transported to the school.
Finding Starbucks only took a few minutes. I entered and looked about expectantly. Although there were a few friendly smiles in return, no one seemed to be expecting me. “No worries,” I said to myself. “Surely someone will come along shortly.” I settled into a comfy chair and searched the face of each person coming in. It was a little reminiscent of junior high gym class: Would I soon be chosen for the team?
Half an hour later, decidedly not chosen, I admitted there must have been a miscommunication. I resolved to take matters into my own capable hands. After all, I had done my share of traveling. I was educated and clever. I had the school’s address in my bag.
I set out to look for the taxi stand. Nagging at my brain was the fact that I had exchanged only a minimal amount of U.S. dollars for Chinese RMB before leaving the U.S. Now that it was late evening, no currency exchange desks were open. Would I have enough cash to get me to my destination?
One floor down, I saw taxis lined up and waiting. I told myself everything was going to be fine. Exhaustion was setting in, and it was going to feel great to take a shower and get to bed. I just needed to find out if my cash would cover the ride. The car door opened, my suitcases were placed in the trunk, and I handed my slip of paper with the school’s address to the driver.
“Ni hao!” That phrase pretty much exhausted my command of Mandarin. The Chinese-only speaking driver (as I was to learn) glanced at the address and nodded. I held up a few RMB and tried to use hand gestures to ask how much the fare would be. But it didn’t matter. He was no longer listening or watching. He was pulling out into the traffic and we were off.
As the taxi swerved and dodged the other vehicles on the road, I had visions of my arrest for not paying for a service rendered and therefore spending my first night in a Beijing jail cell. Who did I think I was? I didn’t know the environment, the language, the customs, or the dangers. It was my goal to learn these things during my stay. This was my first hour in China, and I was already causing trouble.
But, I was in China! I couldn’t help smiling.
The cheerful and determined driver made several stops to ask for directions. Each time he climbed back in with a grin. “Ok!” he tried to assure me, smiling and holding up the paper with the address.
Exhaustion began to mix with despair. I wondered if I would be spending the night in the cab. My mind created more screen shots of life in a Chinese jail. Would anyone be able to visit me? Would the food be drab and tasteless?
After a 45-minute ride, the driver stopped in front of a tall concrete building in a busy neighborhood. I held up a few RMB with a hopeful look at the driver. He snatched the cash and looked visibly relieved to be rid of his cargo. So it seemed I wouldn’t be going to jail after all. The driver unloaded my suitcases, pointed at the building, and quickly took off.
The school’s address indicated the 17th floor, so I crossed the busy lobby and entered the elevator with my month’s worth of belongings in tow. Surely someone would be there and I could finally get settled. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
Not so fast. A new concern, equally as worrisome, was about to take hold.
The doors opened on the 17th floor and revealed a dark hallway. Not a soul in sight. A small sign on a door indicated that it was, indeed, the school. Our class started on Monday morning. I’d have to wait until then to connect.
I no longer cared about finding the right place. I just wanted to find a bed. Dejectedly, I rode back down the elevator with my belongings and approached the only official-looking human in the lobby: the building’s doorman. Putting my hands together, placing them on the side of my face and tilting my head, as if on a pillow, I said, “Hotel? Bed?”
He greeted my display with a questioning look. (Oh boy, I suddenly realized. This could go wrong. Approaching an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar land and asking for a hotel and bed?)
The polite but busy doorman attempted to ignore me. Yet he was my only hope. So I tried again.
That’s when I heard the most beautiful sound behind me. “Do you need help?” It was the first English I’d heard in over an hour! I whirled around and came face to face with my Rescuer.
She turned out to be a petite Chinese woman who said she was a physician. She and her husband, a banker, were passing by on their way out for an evening walk. I explained my missed connection, recent arrival, and desperate need for a hotel, expecting just to get a point in the right direction.
My Rescuer decisively told her husband to get the car. She knew of a safe hotel a few blocks away. Should I trust these people? I didn’t have the energy to argue and gratefully climbed in their car. Angels, I decided.
After helping me check in at the hotel, my Rescuer announced they would now to take me on a personal overview tour of Beijing. My exhaustion dissipated, and a second wind took hold. Could I really be this lucky?
Or was I about to get kidnapped, never to be heard from again?
During the next hour we drove in a Mercedes past Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and various embassies. It was just the beginning of a month of wonder in China.
I tried to articulate my appreciation and thankfulness. “How can you be so gracious to a stranger?” I questioned. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
My Rescuer explained her motives. “It is your first night in Beijing. You must have a good first impression of China. That is important to us.” She smiled broadly.
Dropping me back at the hotel, she gave me her phone number and instructed me to call if I had any other needs during my stay. Needless to say, I slept with great peace and joy, mindful of this fresh evidence that the world is welcoming and good. Staying out of jail was a nice bonus, too.
Copyright © 2022 by Arlene Anderson. All rights reserved. Arlene Anderson is a speaker, writer, musician, and cultural explorer who has visited over 40 countries so far. She held senior positions in healthcare and academic settings for over 25 years and has lived in Norway, China, and Ecuador. Arlene believes there is always more dancing to do and music to play. She makes her home in Maryville.