CHANGSHA, China — My five-hour wait for the next train had barely started when an old woman entered the terminal and stood in the aisle between me and a couple fast asleep in a sweet embrace. It was five past two in the morning in Changsha City, China. We were the only people in the building.
The old woman whipped out a pencil and a piece of paper, and rooted herself in place. Five minutes later, she faced me and gently spoke a line in Mandarin. I answered with a clueless expression, wondering deep inside what the heck she just said to me. After sending a few more words my way, she raised the empty paper and put her pencil to work.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I don’t understand Mandarin.”
More Chinese words. And a smile.
“I can’t speak Chinese,” I reiterated. The pencil continued to dance gracefully on the torn blank page.
The cold was starting to permeate my skin. Weather websites said it was 8-degrees in this dot on the vast map of China. But there was a weird brand of warmth in watching her watch me get totally lost in translation. I had spent one full day in this country, and I had shared not more than a sentence with any local. Talking was a relief, even if I wasn’t sure the other party understood me.
In less than five minutes, the old lady was done. She sat beside me and gave me the piece of paper that, moments earlier, was the dance floor to her waltzing fingers. She handed me the paper, and on it was a simple sketch. Of me.
“Wow,” I told her. “This is very good. Can I keep this?” She replied with, well, I had no idea what she said.
“Should I pay for this?” But the chance of us understanding each other was more unlikely than me winning the lottery.
I opened my undernourished wallet and fished a 10-yuan bill (roughly 70 pesos), ironed it with my freezing palm, and handed it to her. She gladly accepted.
“Xie xie,” she said. Finally, something I understood. She repeated the words with so much joy as though I handed her a winning lotto ticket. She left smiling. I was left smiling. It was the happiest 10 yuan I spent in China.