“Please, let me! It is my way of saying thank you for speaking to me, another English speaker, in a city with not so many.“
Arriving in Shanghai I could see the lights from my hotel room, calling me for a cold walk along the cities famous waterfront strip, The Bund.
I was already scared of China, and nervous about Shanghai. Having never ventured further into China than Shen Zehn, the economic city which shares a Southern border with Hong Kong, I was most worried about all of the stories Hong Kong residents had told me about their neighbours to the North.
Stories of deceit, kidnapping, and death plagued my thoughts, but spending close to 5-hours both at airports and in transit I had to get out for a walk… and with new lenses for my camera I couldn’t help but bring them out for a test run.
Despite the near zero degree weather, there were plenty of loved-up couples wandering down the strip, where classic European-style architecture on one side of the Huangpu River, meets Pudong’s ultra-futuristic designs on the other.
Pulling my camera out of my bag I was happy to once again be invisible and doing something I loved – taking photos of beautiful things.
Well, I thought I was invisible until I straightened up and he pounced on me.
“Hello, hello! You speak English?!“
I cringed, checked for escape routes – there were none, as I had backed myself into a lighting pole – before nodding slowly.
“Oh, good! An English speaker! What’s your name?…“
His story tumbled out of his mouth and I wasn’t sure why he had pounced on me. Looking around I saw another white person he could have pounced on but he chose me; I protectively clutched my camera bag tighter at the thought of what evil reason he could be talking to me.
“I am from Egypt. I am – uh… how do you say, “a marine engineer”? On exchange with my companies partner in Shanghai to make submarines. It’s such a beautiful city, too crowded but nice.“
He kept talking about himself and life in Shanghai, but I was more nervous about what was going to happen. Was he a liar? Was he going to sell something to me? Was he going to ask for money? – so many questions kept pushing their way to the front of my head as I tried to use body language to indicate I wanted to leave.
As it crept towards 11 pm, the time when the lights are turned off along the Bund, I was worried I’d be left in the dark, in a strange city, with a stranger who might harm me – I began freaking out.
“Which camera do you use? May I talk to you about photography? I always forget to bring my camera when I visit beautiful places like this. Can I take a photo for you?“
My mind was screaming “Ah-ha!” He was going to pretend to take a photo of me and steal my camera, but that wasn’t going to happen. I politely declined and his face seemed to fall a little, but he quickly continued talking about Shanghai, and how it was too cold. He missed the desert heat of Egypt, though Shanghai fascinated him.
“Promise me you will visit my favourite spot in the city?“
I nodded, again worried about where this ‘favourite spot’ may be.
“Lujiazui Park – say it with me ‘Lu-jia-zui’ – it is the most beautiful spot in the city.“
A beggar man came up to him as he was teaching me how to pronounce the parks name. The Egyptian spoke only a few phrases of Mandarin and the man didn’t speak any English, continually gesturing at his cup. After a minute of mis-communication, he shook his head and pulled out his wallet, dropping a few Yuan in the man’s cup. The man gave us a gummy grin and began shuffling along to the next unsuspecting couple.
“He’s probably going to waste it on beer,” he chuckled.
Perhaps I had misjudged him.
Only a few minutes later a woman with an armful of roses came up to us, gesturing that he should buy me one. Once again he took out his wallet, and carefully selected the three nicest roses before presenting them to me.
“For you. A thank you for speaking with me tonight.“
I shook my head, blushing. He was too kind but didn’t need to do this, but he held up his hand as he continued bargaining with the woman for my roses.
“Please, let me! It is my way of saying thank you for speaking to me, another English speaker, in a city with not so many. Though I think I paid her too much… she kept asking for more. Tourist price. At least I know the words how to bargain or I’d always pay too much.“
I really had misjudged him.
As we continued talking I learned about Egypt and his work, no longer afraid he was a scammer or going to hurt me. He was just a person amongst millions of others who wanted someone to chat to him in a language he actually spoke. I felt like a fool.
He glanced at his watch, “My ferry leaves soon. I’m living with friends and they don’t like me to be home too late; They worry. It was so nice to speak with you, enjoy your trip to Shanghai and come visit Egypt soon!“
I took the roses back to the Hilton Shanghai and put them in a glass of water on the desk, but each time I saw them I felt guilty.
I try my hardest not to judge a book by their cover, but in a new city I had freaked out thinking he was going to harm me when all he wanted was to talk. Guilt wracked me. What would have happened if the roles had been reversed and I had wanted to speak to him? Or what if it had been a girl who had approached me? Would I have been as scared?
There was so many questions surrounding my encounter with the Egyptian man but those roses sitting on the desk for the rest of the week reminded me to be open to new experiences because you never know when you’ll find another rose in Shanghai.