Encounter in Beijing


I lace up my shoes, step through the revolving door of my hotel, and set out to run on my last morning in Beijing. It is November 1998; my husband, with whom I have traveled for the past five weeks, has gone home; I will leave this afternoon to join a friend in Nepal.

At home on Long Island I run in the streets, but with Chang An Avenue choked with phalanxes of bicycles competing for space with hordes of newly acquired exhaust-belching cars, I don’t dare step off the curb. I weave around the people hurrying along the crowded pavement and suddenly catch sight of a runner ahead of me. First I see a bright orange shirt, then a black ponytail bobbing up and down; then, as the quick-moving crowd momentarily thins out around her, I see, with some surprise, that this is a young woman. Over the past weeks I have seen hardly any Chinese joggers, none of them women.

When she disappears from view I guess that she was running toward the bus stop just ahead. But no, she suddenly reappears from the throng of slim mini-skirted young women hurrying to work, neatly suited fathers taking children to day care, vendors offering aromatic pancakes from steaming carts. When I look around I see this only other runner on the avenue next to me –  pretty, almond-eyed, creamy-complexioned.

I smile at her, she at me. I always like company on a run and I always like to make connections with citizens of countries I travel to. I already had several unforgettable person-to-person meetings over these past few weeks – the tai chi teacher who sat in a café in Emei and told me of his suffering during the Cultural Revolution, the 13-year-old girl in Ninglang who invited me into her apartment, the storekeeper I “talked to” (although he spoke no English and I no Chinese) the day I rode a rented bike into the countryside just outside Lijiang, the high school student in Kunming who asked “What’s it like to live in the Big Apple?” To me, these encounters were much more meaningful forms of  “sightseeing” than the Great Wall, the terra-cotta warriors, the Three Gorges.

So I’m delighted when this young woman offers the usual gambit to a foreigner: “Where are you from?” I don’t yet know how this brief encounter will haunt me in the years to come. For as we run side-by-side for a scant half hour our conversation goes beyond a superficial glimpse into the life of someone from an exotic culture, and turns out to plumb surprising depths.

Li Yin tells me she is 22 years old and has been working as a cashier in one of the restaurants at the five-star Beijing Hotel where I am staying. She’s just lost her job because the building is being remodeled and that restaurant is closed. She’ll lose her home too, since she’s been living in staff quarters. When she studied hotel and restaurant business at Nanjing University, this was definitely not the job she had in mind; she didn’t like cashiering and doesn’t know what to do now. I’m touched by Li Yin’s openness as she lets me into her life; I want to hear more. And then I hear more than I want to.

“I feel lonely, Sally,” Li Yin tells me as we approach Ti’anenman Square, “with no one to care for me.” Her parents live far away in Shanxi Province as does her only sister, now living in the countryside with her husband and their two-year-old son. Although Li Yin has been in Beijing a year she has not made friends. I wonder why: she’s pretty, personable and friendly. Is she shy with people her own age?

Her questions come faster than our jogging pace: “What is your job? Do you like it? What is your husband’s job? Do you like Beijing? Do you like to travel? How many children do you have? Where do you live?” And then as we turn around to head back through the masses of hurrying people, she zings to the heart of what she wants to know about this foreign woman: “Are you happy?”

I’m taken aback. I can’t remember when anyone asked me this before. We run a few steps in silence while I collect my thoughts. Then I say “Yes, I am happy.” I tick off reasons: my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my health, work I like, enough money to have a comfortable life. “I’m very lucky.”

Then comes Li Yin’s hardest question: “How can I find happiness?”

What can I say? I feel terribly inadequate. I think about asking her to spend a few hours with me, until mid-afternoon when I’ll have to go to the airport to leave China. We could talk more, I could call upon the wisdom I should have by now – or at the very least, I could ease her loneliness for a little while, make her feel valued. I’ve loved feeling a connection with this young woman; I’d like to extend it just a little longer. But that would mean giving up these few hours of solitude I’ve been looking forward to – I have not been alone for five weeks, I won’t be alone for two more, and I sorely miss the solitary  time I’m used to.

I silently berate myself for my selfishness. In my guilty groping to offer some crumb of help, I toss out practical advice: “Look for a job you’ll like, since you’ll probably be working most of your life. Maybe a hotel desk clerk, or a tour guide with a travel agency. Try to meet people. Go to McDonald’s – I hear a lot of young people like to sit there.”

She says in her soft voice, “You are so friendly and nice.” This makes me feel even guiltier.  Maybe, I think, I can invite her for lunch. But I don’t propose this either. I think about just asking her into the hotel, where I can give her my address and ask her to write to me. But still I hold back.

The image of Dawa, my appealing cook on a recent trek in Nepal, fills my mind. I remember how he e-mailed me after I returned home, then phoned and faxed, making multiple requests for me to sponsor him in the United States, to take responsibility for him during his stay here, even to lie to immigration officials on his behalf. And he was not the only one to importune me. I didn’t like saying no. I  don’t want to go through that discomfort again. Besides, my days are full. And so is my heart. I am involved with my family, my friends, my work. I am reluctant to take on a needy waif.

Still, as we approach my hotel, part of me is hoping that Li Yin will ask for my address, and then I’ll ask for hers. But she doesn’t and I don’t. Instead, we shake hands, tell each other we’re glad we met – and we part. I go up the broad front steps to my luxury hotel. She continues down the street.

I finish packing, bring my bags down to the bell desk, head for the busy shopping street around the corner, go in and out of cluttered stalls, packed with silk ties, cashmere sweaters, knock-off name-brand warm-up suits,  to look for one last gift. The sandwich I eat in the hotel coffee shop sticks in my throat, as I see the empty chair opposite me and think that Li Yin should be sitting there. I look around the lobby, thinking that maybe I’ll catch sight of her. I want a second chance to be her friend. But I don’t see her sweetly wistful face anywhere. Almost certainly, I’ll never get that second chance – at least not with Li Yin.

Seven years after that encounter I still think about it. Because I did more than meet a young woman on the street that morning – I encountered myself as well. I came face to face with who I was and what my priorities were. I have asked myself since then whether those few hours I claimed for myself in the shops and streets of Beijing were worth passing up an opportunity to extend my hand and heart to someone to whom it might have meant so much.

And then, as I have tried to answer that question, I have realized that my sense that day in Beijing of what I could do for Li Yin had a touch of grandiosity about it – unless I was willing to bring her into my life as a fourth daughter, which I definitely was not. And even if I had, how much could I do for her? My ability to help my own grown daughters with their life issues is limited. What, then, made me think I could do much to help this forlorn young woman from a vastly different culture?

I started out that morning on Chang An Avenue thinking of myself as someone who reaches out to other people, who is friendly and kind and helpful and generous and loving. That double encounter – with Li Yin and with Sally Olds – cast into sharp relief my dilemma: What happens when my desire to be kind to another person conflicts with what I feel I need for myself? On that morning in Beijing I answered this question: I was kind and loving to myself. At the time I didn’t think of my actions in those terms. I acted intuitively, taking care of me.

Now, from the perspective of time and thought, my dominant feeling is no longer guilt – but sadness. I know that I lost something by protecting myself from becoming more involved than I wanted to be. And yet I gained something too – the few hours of solitude I so sorely needed, the caring for myself. I see now that even as I felt the pain of Li Yin’s suffering, I unconsciously weighed her needs and my own – and my own weighed more heavily on my personal scale.

Still Li Yin pops up from time to time in my thoughts. Did she find a job? Did she make a friend? Where is she living? I hope that she has found some peace in her life, some satisfaction, some surcease from loneliness. Most of the time – like most people in my comfortable circumstances – I am able to put the great pain in strangers’ lives at an easy distance, shoved into its own hidden niche. I read newspaper accounts of great suffering, maybe I write a check, maybe I make a phone call – and then I go back to my own life. But there are times – like that morning in Beijing — when the pain in another person’s life abrades my own, and I can no longer avoid thinking about it.

Perhaps my deep awareness of Li Yin’s pain stems from my recognition of  the vulnerability and transience of the human condition, a recognition that sometimes forces its way to the surface of my mind, and leads me to ask how much I should be doing to alleviate it, how much I can do. Perhaps acknowledging this recognition and my own limitations will help me to accept the imperfections of life, including the imperfections in myself.

In press, Pennsylvania Gazette

© Sally Wendkos Olds