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In China, a baby breaks the language barrier

In a Shanghai lane, motherhood connects an old Chinese woman and an American expat.

By Kristin Bair O'Keeffe / July 7, 2011

A lane connects Anfu and Wuyuan roads in Shanghai, China.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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I'd been living on Anfu Road in Shanghai, China, for about six months when I discovered the pedestrian lane that runs between my road and Wuyuan Road. Although the city is full of these longtangs – labyrinthine networks of narrow alleyways lined with low-rise apartment buildings – I was hesitant to use it.

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"I feel like I'm walking into someone's home," I told a friend.

"Oh, everyone uses the lanes," she assured me. "It's like a neighborhood back home."

Since moving to China from the United States, I'd missed having a neighborhood where local folks knew my face, my routine, and therefore, a little something about my life. Shanghai is a big, crowded, bustling city, and if you don't dig out a pocket for yourself, you can get swallowed up in a flash.

So one day, feeling brave and a little lonely, I turned from Anfu Road into the lane. At the mouth, four or five cooks from the Sichuan restaurant next door were cleaning potatoes and greens. A little ways down, a woman was hanging her freshly laundered underwear on a line high above me with a broom-length hook. And even farther in, another woman was washing dishes in a communal outdoor sink.

A neighborhood.

Midway down the lane, I saw an old woman sitting on a stool with a bowl in her lap. She was cleaning beans.

"Nihao," I said as I passed.

She didn't even look up.

A few days later, I took the same route. Feeling a little surer of myself, I nodded to the cooks and adeptly avoided getting dripped on by the freshly washed clothes hanging overhead.

Sidestepping a passing bicycle, I saw the same old woman sitting on the same stool in the same spot with the same bowl in her lap. She was sorting greens.

"Nihao," I said, this time a little louder.

She didn't even look up.

So much for being part of a neighborhood, I thought.

This went on for months. The lane became a part of my regular walk, and eventually I got a nihao from the cooks and even a smile from the lady who was always hanging laundry.

But the old woman on the stool? Nothing. Not a word. Not even a glance.

It bothered me, but I figured she had her reasons. After all, I was just another foreigner, a laowài, passing through on my way to someplace else.

Then my husband and I adopted our daughter in Vietnam and brought her home to Shanghai. Tully was 8 months old. A darling, wriggling, passionate little being. Every morning I strapped her to my chest in a sling and took her for a walk, starting with a stroll down the lane.

On the first day that I walked with Tully, the cooks dropped their knives and potatoes and stared. Though I didn't talk to them, I heard their collective thought clear as a bell: Holy cow, she has a baby.

I smiled at them. "Nihao," I said.

A little ways down, the laundress and a few other women saw me and stopped their work. They huddled together, exchanged a few words with one another, and stared.

I smiled at them, cuddling my new daughter against my chest. "Nihao."

They smiled back. "Nihao," the laundress said.

Then I caught sight of the old woman on the stool. She was watching me.

As I passed, Tully made this funny noise she liked to make – a cross between a siren and a shriek – and the old woman met my eyes and smiled.

"Nihao," she said to me, fingers gripping the bowl in her lap.

And that was it. Motherhood – the shared experience that crosses all cultural lines – moved this old woman to finally acknowledge the foreigner who wanted so much to be a part of her neighborhood, even in a peripheral way.

Since then my daughter has charmed many people, and when she's running around warming hearts with her own great big one, I call her my ambassador of love.

Every couple of weeks, the two of us walk down the lane, looking at vegetables, doorways, and birds tweeting in cages. If the old woman is out, she smiles, measures Tully's growth with her eyes, and says, "Nihao."

Once she even stood up for a peek.

"Piàoliang," she said. Beautiful.

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