I scooched my butt to the left, straddling two seats in order to maintain the appropriate number of inches between me and my fellow commuter. She tucked her elbows in, her gaze locked on her iPhone, playing a game of Candy Crush with blank enthusiasm. My eyes swept the bus, at loss for a settling point. I would have liked to look out the window at the passing urban landscape. However, if I did that, I could not avoid appearing to stare at the businessman seated directly across from me. So I feigned interest in the ads pasted on the ceiling.
“Seriously?!” someone groaned as the bus slowed to a stop. I looked up. The bus door opened with a sigh. My ears perked at the sound of someone speaking a foreign language. I love attempting to identify foreign languages.
Quite suddenly, a group of seven or eight men and women—all Asian and all toting the kind of personal grocery cart that old women who ear plastic bags over their permed hair are associated with—loaded onto the bus. It took less than a moment for me to recognize the foreign language: Mandarin Chinese. I studied Mandarin in college and spent a semester in Sichuan province, so it wasn’t a matter of guesswork. I knew with certainty that the group was jabbering to one another in Putonghua, the common language of mainland China.
They all found places to stow their exotic vegetables, clearly purchased at a specialty market. As the group found seats, the commuters on the 14, including myself, all inhaled. I scooched back over to the right as one of the men made for the empty seat beside me. I wrapped my arms around the backpack in my lap, trying and failing to lean away from both the commuter on my right, still intently playing Candy Crush, and the Chinese man on my left.
He turned to sit down, and his backpack scraped my face, then rammed into my shoulder. He did not apologize. I was not surprised. Once settled, he loudly asked if everyone in his group had found a seat.
My first instinct was to shrink away and avert my attention. But my second instinct, curiosity, speedily took over. I leaned in to eavesdrop. I glanced at my fellow commuters faces to witness their reactions to the unapologetically Chinese group.
In China, it is perfectly normal to shove and push strangers to make room for yourself. It is appropriate to conduct booming conversations in public. No one thinks twice about staring openly at anything that might be considered a spectacle.
As a tall, blonde American in Chengdu, I became used to the feeling of having eyes trained on me every time I left my dormitory. A few times, small children pointed at me and announced, “laowai,” which means “foreigner.” Once, when I was riding my bike around the university, a man driving a motor scooter was so fixed on staring at me that he ran into a curb.
So, I relaxed, allowing my arm to brush the arm of the man on my left. I watched professionals and students wipe expressions of astonishment off of their faces and return to their smartphones and mp3 players. I listened to the husband and wife on my left discuss what stop they should disembark at.
Sadly, people who speak foreign languages generally converse about the same commonplace subjects that English speakers do. Happily, the challenge of translating a foreign language makes commonplace subjects seem infinitely more exciting.
Only two stops after boarding the bus, most of the early morning shoppers got off the bus with their heavily laden carts. In a few minutes, my bite of China had vanished. However, the aftertaste was strong.
That day, I noticed all of the red in Portland. Each time I caught a flash of the color, I turned, expecting to see a red banner emblazoned with foot-high white characters. I smelled China in the car exhaust as I walked from my bus stop to work. I craved pork dumplings dipped in chili oil and hand-pulled noodles fried with egg and tomato. For a little while, Chengdu and Portland overlaid one another, like parallel universes.