I have wrapped up my last meeting of the day. I skip the metro to take a long, slow walk back to my hotel. I walk past several eateries. Suddenly, a lady calls out to me. I turn to look and see a Chinese granny sitting alone inside a Chinese eatery. I am still on Adventurous Mode from being on fieldwork, and decide to walk in.
It seems she is the owner, awaiting customers in her empty shop. In broken English, she asks me where I came from. I tell her “Australia”. She looks disappointed and mutters that she thought I was Chinese. I switch to Mandarin and explain that I grew up in Singapore, where there are many Chinese Singaporeans and Chinese nationals. She visibly perks up and tells me she is so happy to see a “child of Asia” (yazhou de haizi).
The granny asks why I can speak Mandarin, so I tell her that I learnt it in school. Possibly because my accent is different from hers, she asks me whether I can read Chinese. I tell her I can read and write it well, although my accent is different. I tell her that I am Malay from Singapore but that I also have some Chinese heritage. She asks whether Singapore is just a part of Malaysia. I give her my mini spiel on Malayness (malai ren) vs. Malaysia (malai xiya). The granny then responds that regardless, we are both from Asia, and being so far away from “home” here in Denmark, we are considered family (yi yang, doushi jiaren). You are a “child of Asia!” (yazhou de haizi), she reminds me again.
I want to cry. I do not know why this granny is being so kind. I ask her if I can order food to take away. She says of course I can, and that she will make me anything I like, even if it is not on the menu. She says she is so happy to see a “child of Asia” (yazhou de haizi) that she will make me anything I want.
But then I realize that the store does not have electronic payment machines and I only have my card and no cash (it is Denmark). I ask her where the nearest ATM is (I forget the word for it, so I say “daqianji”). The granny laughs and says she knows what I mean. But the ATM is really far away. She suggests that I can eat my fill this evening and pay her the next time I pass her store. I tell her I cannot do this because she is running a business (zuoshengyi de, buxing).
Then she dips into the kitchen and reappears with a whole mini mountain of chasiubaos in a basket, and shoves one into my hands. I refuse and tell her that I am unable to pay. She activates Chinese Granny Aggression As Affect and tells me that money is nothing when you find family so far away (haiyao shenmei qian, qianliyaoyao pengdao jiaren, bubi bubi). I want to cry some more. I fish out all the coins I have and ask if it is okay that this is all I can give to her. The granny takes the miserly change I have and claims it is exactly the right cost of one bao. My heart is so squeezed.
Wanting to prolong this very precious interaction, I ask the granny where she grew up. “Shanghai”, she says, to which I squeal and tell her I was there just two weeks ago. Her eyes widen, she tells me the weather in Shanghai is super hot (chaoji re), and asks what I was doing there. I forget how to say “conference” in Mandarin, so I tell her that I went to give a talk at the university.
She learns that my subject area is internet culture, and swiftly whips out her phone. Then she asks if I know about weixin, opens her app to show me her text messages with several people, and asks whether I know why no one is responding. She asks whether it is because she has no internet connection. I cannot figure it out because her phone signal looks fine. But I quietly ponder over the implications of her familial absences or loneliness. To change the mood, I fish out my book postcard from my bag and gift it to her. The granny returns to her wide-eyed glare and jokingly expresses shock at how such a young person can possibly pen a book.
I thank her for her kindness, and tell her that it feels really nice to experience familiarity (shouxi gan) and intimacy (qinqie gan) so far away from home. She tells me that Danish young people only eat pizza (there was a pizzeria further down the street, so maybe angst from competition) and that nobody appreciates baos any more (meiren xinshang le).
I thank her again for the bao and contort my body language to indicate that I am preparing to leave. She stops me and shoves a second bao into my hands. She tells me that since I have no cash, I must not go hungry (bukeyi erduzi). I look at the two baos in my hands and wonder why I am experiencing so much grace and kindness from a stranger. The granny looks at me, then orders me to eat the baos right away, while they are still warm (buyaozhikan, gankuai chengre chi).
I walk towards the doorway and thank the granny once more. She tells the “child of Asia” to take care (yazhou haizi, niyao baozhong). Then she tells me that I must visit her often. I lie, and say that I will try. As I walk away, I try very hard not to cry.
Edited to add 15 hours later –
In between meetings today, I bought flowers and went back to the granny’s shop. On my way there, we bumped into each other while crossing the road in the rain. I told her I was on the way to her shop; she told me she was on the way to the bank. She took my arm and said we will go back to the shop so she can cook for me this time. She then fished out her phone and said she would call to reschedule her appointment. Not wanting to inconvenience her, and being unable to counter Chinese Granny Aggression As Affect, I told a white lie that I was rushing off to catch my flight.
I gave her the flowers, which she refused at first, suggesting that I gift them to my landlord or flight attendant instead. This time, it was my turn to shove things into her hands. I told her the flowers were a gift to thank her for her kindness. She told me off for spending money, part in jest, part in gratitude.
I asked if we could take a photo together, to which she immediately pulled off her rain hoodie and adjusted her hair. She placed the flowers into her bag. Then she whipped out a notebook full of names and numbers, and asked that I leave her my contact details. I did.
Before we parted, she rummaged through her bag and fished out these two pieces of candy. She gifted them to me and told me to take care. She added that I must pack my suitcase properly and not forget anything, that I must get to the airport safely, and that if I ever visit Copenhagen or Shanghai again, I must look her up so she can cook for me. I told her I would try, and this time it was not a lie.