One very big difference between living in China and living in the US is the number of conversations I have. I have moments in China where I feel as though I'm in an isolated bubble. People around me talk, but I only understand snatches of words and phrases. Few would dare to engage me, seeing my western face and assuming I spoke limited Chinese. (And they'd be right). If I have to take long walks, I put in my earbuds and listen to a podcast, which almost drowns out the sound of traffic, shouting, horns, and general noise that is part of life in Beijing.
So when I come home for a visit, I'm suddenly bombarded by random conversations in a way that is both pleasant and exhausting. Suddenly, I'm finding myself in short chats as I wait to board a plane, or as I stand on line at the store. English is everywhere. It takes some adjustment.
Yesterday was an interesting example. I fell into conversation about Kindles with a guy waiting to board the southwest flight to BWI. We also chatted about choosing the right middle seat, since we were in the C boarding group. As we filed onto the plane, he said, "Everything happens for a reason." I don't remember the context but I remember thinking it was kind of an odd thing to say.
Looking forward to an hour of uninterrupted reading, I found a middle seat between two people who looked neither like armrest hogs or talkers. All went well until the plane took off and we hit some very minor turbulence. Suddenly the man next to me grabbed the armrest and part of my arm. I looked at him and he was pale and shaking.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"No, I have a problem with flying," he whispered.
"Would it help if I distracted you by talking?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"Well," I said. "I live in China."
And for the next hour we talked about everything under the sun: China, travel, triathlons, children, Paris, dragon boats, Cambodia, life. I told him how we came to live in China, how our children also lived there, and how life works out in ways you can never imagine.
As we finally landed, and he took a deep breath, a woman across the aisle handed me a card that said: "The world needs more people like you." On the other side of the card, it said, "Reiki Appreciation Card. This card was given to you by someone who appreciates you. Please take time to accept and savor this appreciation. And when the time is right, pass this card on to someone else."
I didn't do much but talk. I wonder what would have happened if I had been sitting next to someone who didn't speak English. I guess I would have patted his arm.
I never did get his name. But I have been sneaking peeks at my Reiki Appreciation Card and looking forward to my chance to pass it on. I just hope they don't ask me about Reiki.