Swimming in a new pond: The helpful fish you're thankful for

Alexander Bushroe
"Human kindness and empathy abound here, and it's something that I'm grateful for."
Alexander Bushroe
Swimming in a new pond:  The helpful fish you're thankful for

Moving is a hassle. This universal truth is known and understood by virtually everyone. When a friend calls and opens the conversation with, "Hey, can I ask you for a favor?" one of the first thoughts to cross my mind is very likely to be, "Oh no, please don't ask me to help you move." I'm not much of a fan of manual labor.

Of course, I, as a quote-unquote "good friend," will agree to assist without whinge or complaint, as least, most of the time. Yes, friends reading this, don't be discouraged from asking for my help; I'm happy to lend a hand. However, it's a different kind of assistance that comes with – and after -- moving that I'd like to discuss today.

Changing locations entirely can be quite a bewildering experience. Everyone in the city, excluding native Shanghainese locals, moved to the city at some point, either from another, almost certainly smaller city, or from a small town or village, or even from another country altogether. Often times, when making such a change, the physical transportation of possessions is the least of one's worries. Whether it's the transition from small town life to a bustling metropolis or learning the ropes of a new city or country where things are just done differently, figuring out how to get by in a new place often poses the greatest challenge to those who've just jumped into new waters.

It's often the simplest things that prove to be the most bothersome. For me, the frustration of being unable to complete simple tasks like paying the electric bill or finding the right bus to take was truly exasperating. Sure, I was a young man when I first arrived, but I wasn't an infant. Encountering such maddening difficulty when completing the simplest tasks was quite the humbling experience.

But I was lucky because in short order I realized that I was surrounded by people – new colleagues, new friends, or complete strangers – that understood or at least sympathized with my plight and were more than happy to assist me during these moments of confusion and despair. I'm eternally grateful to these folks. Thinking back on those times and how naive I was, I wonder how I was even able to put my pants on in the morning without their guidance.

So I'd like to thank some of the people who helped me through my transitional period to life in China and in Shanghai. I'm sure many of you have had similar experiences in the past.

My first five years in China were spent in and around the city of Nantong, in Jiangsu Province; a city that's just across the Yangtze River from Shanghai to the north, less than a two-hour jaunt by car. Those years were the most formative years of my experience in China, and Nantong was the site of most of my deer-in-the-headlights, lost-in-the-woods sort of moments, so my stories about helpful fish in the pond are based there.

The first people to help me was a group of five. They were from different backgrounds; two from the US and the other three from Australia, England, and Austria. These five gentlemen all had been living in China for several years, and they showed me around the city, where to get some good grub for dinner, and of course, a few of the local watering holes. Top blokes.

The second group of people I must express gratitude toward are two men, Mr. Wang and Mr. Chen, who took me under their wing and helped me gain invaluable experience and confidence. Both were successful businessmen in the local textile industry, and they took me under their wing. It was through meetings and factory tours and trade fairs and dinners with clients and suppliers and customers that I not only learned a great deal about the business world here but sharpened my language skills and truly gained confidence in my ability to speak Chinese.

The final person I'd like to thank is the most unlikely of the bunch. It's a person who I met one time, for about five minutes and whom I'll surely never see again. Her generosity not only saved me a ton of time and hassle – and money – but her benevolence and selflessness is something I'll never forget. Here's what happened.

About 10 years ago, my mother came to China to visit me. It was her first time in the country, so we traveled to the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, stopped in Shanghai for a few days, and hit Guangzhou for a bit of the southern flair of Guangdong. But in between all that, she came to Nantong to check out the city that I was living in.

We had planned to take a taxi to the bus station and head to the city of Suzhou next. This was, of course, before the days of Didi and the other taxi-hailing apps, so we walked down the street to the nearby bustling shopping mall where cabs frequently lined up out front waiting for potential patrons. I helped my Mom out and put her suitcase in the trunk of the taxi, hopped in the back, and off we went. After the 40-or-so-minute ride to the bus station, we tossed our bags onto the conveyor belt for x-ray screening, and on the other side, I grabbed the suitcase but... my backpack... with my laptop computer, my new iPad, and my iPhone 3G (!!!) inside, never emerged from the scanner's flaps.

Suspicion, then relief

Immediately, my mind raced. Had someone stolen my bag? Did someone confuse it for their own and grab it by mistake? Within minutes, I had managed to explain the situation to the security team, and they whisked me up to the control room with cameras pointed in every direction to see if they could spot the culprit.

After checking every angle, the head man asked me, "Are you sure you had the bag when you walked in?" I said, "Of cour... wait... Did I?" Footage of the entrance showed that I indeed was bagless upon entering the station. Red-faced with embarrassment, I apologized to the security staff – and to my Mom; surely not the tourist experience she was expecting – and high-tailed it out of there and back toward the mall. Jumping out of the cab, frantically searching the hedges and bushes and sidewalks outside, I paced back and forth, cursing myself for my carelessness and for ruining my mother's trip, as we'd missed our bus by a long shot by that point. When suddenly...

A woman with a large bag and a long pincer-like tool in hand tapped me on the shoulder and softly asked, "Are you looking for something? What's the matter?" I, through gasps of exasperation, sputtered, "A bag, a black backpack, it's got my computer in it and... and..." She smiled knowingly, and led me to a container piled high with bags of rubbish in a giant bin she'd picked up over a hard day's work. She lifted up one of the black plastic sacks, and underneath sat my missing backpack.

Overcome with relief, I thanked her profusely, and pulled out my wallet to offer a reward for the thousands of yuan – not to mention all the pictures, files, and massive hassle – she had just saved me. She immediately shook her head and refused. "No, no, I won't accept any money. It's no problem," she replied. I turned to her son, aged about 8 or 9, who was standing beside her, and shoved three red bills in his hand. She immediately stepped in, and despite my protests, ardently refused to accept any sort of remuneration. I could only thank her about a dozen more times, then head back to the bus station to buy new tickets.

It was a truly memorable experience, and one that I have, over the years, become less and less surprised by. Human kindness and empathy abound here, and it's something that I'm grateful for.

So I'd like to thank my first friends, my helpful bosses, and the lady who so kindly saved my brand-new, state-of-the-art iPhone 3. And, of course, my mother for her patience during the whole episode.

So I encourage you to think back to when you first arrived in Shanghai, or in China, or any place that was new and different to you at the time, and think of the people who helped you through the transition. It's a vast ocean out there, and sometimes a little fish needs a bit of help from others in the school.

And feel free to call me if you need help moving. I promise. It's fine.

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