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When Erik and I were traveling in northern China, in places where we didn’t see another white person for days at a time, we were continually treated above and beyond the normal call of duty, sometimes to almost absurd excess. Which was one thing when a single person was privately accommodating us -- for example, the hotel manager, or a fellow passenger on a train, etc. But when this happened in a very public way, we weren’t sure how to handle it.

The best example is when we bought train tickets in Yinchuan (Ningxia Province) -- where, incidentally, when we arrived there from Hohhot, we exited past posts papered with advertisements translated into English as “ram testicles” and “ewe placentas.” This seemed strangely anachronistic considering we were the only native English speakers for probably many miles around and days worth of disembarking passengers. (Though I discovered that it was not uncommon for places such as hotels to have things written in English as a sign of the sophistication of their establishment … even though the translations were oft horrendous.) There was no indication given on the posters what we might use these delightful animal organs for. We decided not to investigate.

Anyway, when we came back to the station a couple days later to purchase train tickets for the next leg of our journey the following day, we got out of the taxi and stood for a few moments trying to discern which line we should go stand in to make our purchase. While I learned to speak some Mandarin, I knew nothing about reading Chinese characters. One line was significantly longer than all the others. Suddenly a man approached us and asked in English what we were there for. We told him we needed tickets to Lanzhou and he grabbed our arms and said he would help us, whisking us almost violently to the front of that long line. I tried to explain that we could get the tickets ourselves -- to date I’d had no problem owing to a form I had that my Chinese tutor had helped me with for purchasing tickets. As he tried to shove us in front of all the other waiting passengers into the ticket window, we begged him not to force us to cut in line, told him we appreciated his help, but we could manage the situation. But he wouldn’t relent. I looked back at all the others standing in line. Erik and I both made gestures of apology for cutting in front of them; we honestly felt quite badly about it. We anticipated animosity from the other passengers at the privileged Westerners getting such expedited service; I worried they thought we felt entitled to such elevated treatment and that we were the ones who had insisted we be taken to the front of the line. Hence we tried to gesture our protestations of being allowed to cut in line. So our benefactor shoved us up to the window and I handed the ticket agent my form which was completed in Chinese characters with all of the required information … where to go, which class of seat, etc.

Suddenly I felt myself jammed up against the window as a pressure mounted against my back and shoulders. The other passengers had broken ranks and crowded around us on all sides, peering over our shoulders. They were terribly curious about our transaction and were fascinated with the piece of paper I’d given the ticket agent. The ones in front who had direct visual access to the form passed back information to those behind them. They were all talking to one another and to us, clearly concerned whether we were getting the right tickets; the English speaker kept trying to provide assistance even though the agent had it under control and was already issuing the tickets – it was a bit chaotic.

When we paid and she handed them over, completing the transaction, we turned to leave and everyone in the crowd was smiling, absolutely beaming at us, saying things I couldn’t understand. They were genuinely pleased as punch for us that we had successfully purchased tickets in their train station. Not one person seemed remotely upset about us cutting in line. If they had had the means, I think they probably would have blown up balloons and thrown confetti at us in their excitement. It was a humbling experience to be the object of such good will for doing nothing more than purchasing a train ticket.

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