Essay: My friend, 'Chairman Mao'

Making friends in China with those who often seem invisible.

At the station: A luggage-laden passenger waited in line last month to buy a ticket at the railway station in Hangzhou, which is in eastern China's Zhejiang Province.

My greatest friendships in China I owe to Chairman Mao.

Several years ago, when my summer vacation in America had just ended, I landed in Sichuan's capital city, Chengdu, and was heading back to Luzhou, the Yangtze river town where I was teaching English. I wasn't looking forward to the four-hour bus ride that lay ahead of me. Laden with a heavy suitcase, a huge backpack, and a small dog, I arrived exhausted at Chengdu's Wuqiao Long Distance Bus Station.

On most of my bus trips to and from Chengdu, I paid no attention to the ragtag group of luggage carriers huddled in the taxi zones.

They were poor farmers from the countryside. So little did they make as farmers that they had to find other ways to supplement their income.

Armed with bare muscle and a thick rope for tying bags together, they jogged after approaching taxis and tried to make eye contact with passengers who might need help. One haul was 3 yuan (35 cents). For a Chinese farmer, several hauls a day was a gold mine.

I never hired carriers. But on this occasion, I was so overburdened that I decided that the first carrier to reach my taxi was going to have my business.

That was "Chairman Mao."

He was a small, thin man with dark, leathery skin and had beaten his heftier competitors by sprinting agilely to the taxi door.

My luggage was heavy, and I remember thinking what a struggle it would be for this tiny man to manage it. However, he easily pulled out my suitcase with one hand and threw the backpack over his shoulder with the other.

"You're fast!" I told him in Chinese. He smiled and led me to the ticket line.

Eventually, we made our way down the escalators and through the security check. My personal hauler hustled along, waiting for me to catch up when I fell behind. He stood outside the restroom while I used the facilities, patiently waited for me to buy travel snacks, and then gently placed my things on the floor.

My departure wasn't for another 30 minutes so he took a seat beside me. Little Flower, my dog, came out of her carrier to position herself on my lap.

Our wait began.

The other Chinese passengers eyed our curious group: the foreigner, her big-eared Chihuahua, and a weathered Chinese man in shabby clothes. His frayed jacket had holes, and the seams of his worn sneakers were unraveling, exposing a toe.

He and I sat quietly, awkwardly. Under the scrutiny of so many eyes, we both felt very uncomfortable.

"What's your surname?" I finally asked.

My carrier brightened. "Mao," he replied.

"Mao? Like Chairman Mao?" I asked for clarification.

He nodded.

"That's a famous surname," I remarked. "I don't have a famous Chinese name. I'm Kangni. This is my dog, Xiao Hua."

During the next half-hour, I began thinking of him as Chairman Mao. He and I chatted while those around us eavesdropped. He was 50 years old. He and his wife were farmers on the outskirts of the city. They had three children, one grown son who was a taxi driver and a teenage son and daughter. He had a sister in Luzhou. He came to the bus station every day to carry luggage. On a good day, he could make up to 50 yuan ($6) but mostly, it was less than that. Some days, it was nothing. There were too many other haulers, and many Chinese carried their own things.

When the Luzhou bus pulled into the station, Chairman Mao grabbed my things and made sure they were safely tucked away in the luggage compartment underneath the bus. I handed him a 10 yuan note, the equivalent of $1.25. He adamantly shook his head and thrust it back into my hands.

"Tai duo-le! Tai duo-le! (Too much! Too much!)," he insisted.

"No," I told him firmly. "My luggage is very heavy. You waited 30 minutes. You must take it."

After a bit more fuss, I won.

He gratefully accepted my offering, then waved goodbye as I climbed aboard with my dog.

I have taken many weekend trips to Chengdu since that first meeting. Rain or shine, there is Chairman Mao to greet me. I can easily manage my small suitcase by myself, but my friend is too quick to grab it from my hands. And I am quite happy to have his company, even if it is a struggle in the end to get him to accept my money.

While we wait, we talk. We share news about our families. We tell personal stories. We discuss Beijing's upcoming Olympic Games.

"We are old friends!" we tell those who stare at us and wonder why the foreigner is so familiar with a poor farmer.

My friendship with Chairman Mao has encouraged me to form relationships with others I once ignored. I now include among my friends the homeless lady in the city square, the beggar in front of my bank, the migrant workers on my campus, and many others. Every friendship opens new doors of cultural understanding for each of us.

And I can honestly say I owe it all to Chairman Mao.

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