This is an experience from China. We decided to hold it for awhile.
We often come across people who want to share their troubles, their very personal stories with us. Perhaps it is because we will pedal out of their lives, and carry part of their burden with us. They are right. This is the first time a person has been so bent to telling us his story, that he ignored or forgot that we could not understand a word he said.
One evening, after a hard day in the saddle, we made our way to the fandian at our small Chinese guest house. A man sat at a short table, on a tiny stool. He was bent and nodding. When he saw us he began to insist that we join him in a drink. He had a bottle of clear liquor on the table, and a full meal, untouched. We politely refused and ordered, but he continued his invitation. The waitress tipped an imaginary bottle behind his back to indicate that he was drunk and to ignore him.
He began a speech of sorts. It included numerous Meiguos, accompanied by thumbs up, meaning he liked America. We politely listened for awhile and said several times, “Wo ting bu dong,” which means “I don’t understand.” This did not deter him and he went on with what increasingly became clear to us, a tale of personal woe.
He was small, middle aged and Han, dressed in his Saturday night black and red athletic shoes, patterned jeans, and what looked like an army jacket, sans patches; perhaps he had been a soldier. As he got deeper into his cups, his emotions found expression in his face and hands. He touched his eyebrow, rubbed his hand from forehead to chin, shook his head. Once he traced a tear coming from his eye with an index finger, and even used it to show him slitting his own throat.
The three employees tried various ways to get him to leave us alone, and laughed quietly when it became obvious that we were trying very hard to understand him and failing.
There was something about the intensity of his emotion that held us. The expression of his being flowed unabated, as he desperately tried to get two lao wai to understand his pain. He needed us to listen. Even if we all knew we could not understand him, he had to tell his story. We had to listen.
Finally he sank lower on his stool as the alcohol began to take control, and we rose to leave. But we had to do one more thing – touch him. We both patted him on the back and told him it would be alright, things would be better. It may have been the first time he had been touched in a long time. It was all we could do. It was the right thing to do. We will remember it for a long time.