At the end of last summer, after my internship in Shanghai was over, I went to Hangzhou, rightfully considered one of the most stunning cities in China.
I spent a week exploring the city, and quickly fell in love with the regional cuisine, the preserved temples of Wushan and the legendary West Lake. I lived like any college-aged wannabe hippie should, sleeping in an old YMCA building that was converted into a Youth Hostel and skipping meals to make the most of the $70 left in my bank account. While my money situation got pretty dire at the end, the week was one of the most unforgettable I’ve ever had.
Finally, after two and a half months in the country, it was time for me leave China. Because my flight was so early in the morning and because I finally was completely out of money, I spent the night stretched out on the tile floor of Hangzhou Airport’s entrance while waiting for my connecting flight to Xiame Singapore. I was the only white person in the airport, so it was not too much of a surprise that I woke up to find a crowd of people taking pictures of me at about 5:30 am. Shaking the sleep out of my head, I smiled at them, grabbed my luggage and went through security.
I arrived at my gate. Since I did not get much sleep the night before, I stretched out on the airport seats. Wearing a salmon colored T-shirt and turquoise pants, covering my eyes with a big black baseball hat with bright red Chinese characters meaning “strong-willed,” I was conspicuous to say the least. But I needed sleep so I didn’t care.
Five minutes passed until I heard a group of people shuffle past and sit down on the chairs about five feet across from me. My eyes still closed, I inadvertently eavesdropped on their conversation. Based on their voices and heavily accented Mandarin, I surmised they were a group of four women from Southern China. Then, I started to listen to what they were actually saying to each other.
“What do you think he is doing in Hangzhou?” “
“Where is he from? Do you think he is English? German? American?”
“He keeps on sniffling, does he have a cold?”
“Do you think he works here or is he traveling?”
“His nose really is long, they always say that about laowai.”
They assume I don’t speak Mandarin and have absolutely no idea I can understand what they are saying. I love the absurdity. So I keep pretending to be asleep for about another five minutes, letting them continue questioning every aspect of my existence.
Finally, unable to stop myself from getting a glimpse at my inquisitors, I peek one of my eyes open to look at them and see from my quick glimpse that they are all middle aged. One of them makes a brief moment of eye contact with me. Silently cursing my lack of subtlety, I rapidly close my eye. But it is too late.
“Did you see that?” One of the old ladies mutters. “He’s awake. Do you think he understands Mandarin?”
“Maybe,” the other responds, “More and more of them do these days.”
After that, I can’t understand a word. All I can hear are sounds somewhat like birds chirping. I realize they have switched to one of China’s countless dialects. Even though I am basically certain they’re talking about me, the bird chirp sounds are beautiful and strangely soothing. Finally, I allow myself to fall asleep.
After about 15 minutes, I wake up. I open my eyes and see they are still there. Sitting up, I stretch my arms in an exaggerated fashion and stand up to do the same with my legs. Finally, I figure it is time to give the old ladies a shock.
“Excuse me ma’am,” I said in Mandarin, speaking to the lady who I had briefly made eye contact with before, “if you don’t mind me asking, what dialect was it that you and your friends were just speaking? I’ve never heard it before.”
“Oh,” she replied, “You speak Mandarin?”
“Yes,” I said, “Pretty fluently, people tell me. I can pretty much understand most things people say, with some exceptions of course.”
“It was a Cantonese dialect,” she said after pausing for a moment. “We are from Foshan.”
“That’s different from Taishanese, right?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s a totally different Cantonese accent. Taishanese can understand us, but we can’t understand them.”
We went on talking for a few more minutes.
Finally, she asked me. “So, you understood everything that we were saying about you?”
“Well,” I paused, “just the parts you spoke in Mandarin. I didn’t understand a word of your dialect.”
“Wonderful!” One of the other women jumped in, “That was why we spoke it. We didn’t want you to understand!”
These kinds of experiences are the ones that make traveling worth it. I’ve had hundreds of moments, each worth recording, but the peace I felt when listening to those women’s chirping bird sounds made me want to prioritize this one memory.
Will Morris IV is a graduate of Gainesville High School and recent graduate of Harvard University, where he studied history, East Asian studies and government.