Iran-US-China Co-op?

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The Day a Wall Became a Bridge

Unlikely Neighbors form Iran-US-China Connection

©Michael Krigline, MA (May 2010)

When you put Iran and America in the same sentence, one expects to read about diplomatic fights, extremists, or the threat of nuclear annihilation. When you add China to the sentence the word “big” comes to mind: the world’s biggest population, biggest army, and biggest trading partner, with growing power that the world’s people don’t know whether to embrace or fear. Well, put those images aside, and prepare for a tale of cooperation, kindness and thankfulness; a tale that took place in Beijing, involving strangers who put aside national labels to build an unusual bridge between the East, West and Arab poles of our divided world.


When I woke up on Monday, May 3, 2010, little did I expect to become the temporary translator for four Iranian men, seeking assistance in China, but that's what happened. Similarly, people from every part of the world rub shoulders every day in airplanes, business towers and scenic spots around the world, and perhaps little adventures like ours might be part of the process of helping so-called enemies set aside baseless fears to make the world a better place for all of us to live.


An Unlikely Translator


As my wife and I were checking out of our Beijing hotel Monday morning, I noticed four men struggling to communicate with the hotel clerk. Bear in mind that this was not at a multi-star hotel, but at a “7 Days Inn”: a comfortable chain of hotels for budget-challenged people from China and “abroad.”


By the time the clerk took my key I had ascertained that these men wanted to go somewhere, English wasn't their native language, and they didn't speak any Chinese. The hotel clerk was trying to speak English, but between her inability to understand their accent and everyone's lack of competence in this second language, they weren’t getting very far. Everyone seemed relived when I offered to help.


“Where do you want to go?” I inquired.


“The Great Wall,” a relieved stranger replied.


“Oh,” I said (and not very enthusiastically), with a thousand potential problems racing through my mind.


Now, the Great Wall is certainly worth seeing, but this happened to be a Chinese National Holiday weekend--International Labor Day. From personal experience, I knew that these guys were not going to like the options available to them.



First, I told the men that we’d just been to the Great Wall the day before, by train, and found it extremely crowded. Then I said that their first decision had to be “how” to get to the Wall. There are basically four options from central Beijing—train, public bus, tour bus, and taxi—and each came with unique challenges. For the next few minutes I tried to present the options in English, stopping occasionally to ask the hotel clerk a question in Chinese.


“How about going by train?” asked the man who spoke the best English—I’ll call him Hassan, though we never really learned anyone’s name.


Well, trains to the Great Wall have “seat” and “stand” tickets (for the same price of 16 yuan), and the “seat” tickets are gone days in advance. The train will get you there within two hours of departure, but you’ll have to stand the whole way (as we had the day before). And you’ll also have to find the right train station, find the right “line” to stand in to get tickets, and try to communicate with a weary ticket-seller in a language she doesn’t understand. (To call the ticket queue a “line” is a misnomer; it is more like a moving mob, twenty minutes long, with five cash-laden hands waving through a little hole at the end. The ticket seller randomly chooses a hand and asks what time you want to leave. Next, she will probably tell you that that train is sold out, but you can’t really understand her tired voice amidst the shouting and noise on your side of her glass cage.) Furthermore, in China, you can’t buy "return" train tickets, so it’s every man for himself trying to get home. This could be very daunting for someone who can’t speak Chinese. With all this information running through my brain, I asked the men: “Trains depart to many destinations. What will you do if you can’t understand the ticket seller, or what time the next available train is? And it is also highly likely that all tickets for today have already been sold.”


“How about going by public or tour bus?” Hassan asked.


Well, yesterday we saw lots of vehicles from the train, but this endless queue of buses, taxis and private cars had turned many parts of the two-way road to the Great Wall into a parking lot. At many places, vehicles were creeping along, and at other places, people were simply standing outside their cars and buses. “Yesterday the road was often clogged,” I said. “There is no telling how long it would take to get there by bus.”


Then I asked, “How about a taxi?” This didn’t get a positive response. Taxis are no faster than buses, and you are paying for the driver’s time, so it could become very expensive. The men said that they didn’t have a fortune at their disposal (remember that, like me, they were staying at a budget hotel), so that option was not very promising.


Next I turned my attention to the hotel staff, and asked (in Chinese) if they could help these guests arrange tickets on a tour bus—it would be a little more expensive than the train or public bus, and it would be a slow trip, but at least they would not get lost or have to face ticket queues in Beijing or at the Wall. I thought that any hotel in Beijing would surely know someone who could help visitors go to China’s most famous landmark. Surprisingly, they said they couldn't! However, the friendly clerk said, "a tour bus leaves from just down the street; you'll see a big sign, in English and Chinese."


While all of this was happening, my wife was having a conversation with another one of these men—I’ll call him Ali. His English wasn’t as good as Hassan’s, but he said they were from Iran, and Vivian said that we were Americans.


“We didn’t think that Americans were this friendly,” Ali said, suddenly realizing that their benefactor was from the last place where they would expect to find help. “Americans don’t like Iranians.”


Vivian made a quick comment about “not all Americans”, but before they could get into a discussion our morning took an unexpected turn. Vivian would wait at the hotel for our ride to the airport (who had called to say he was stuck in Beijing traffic, and would be late), and I volunteered to take the guys down the street in search of a tour operator.


As I walked briskly down the street, with Hassan at my side and Ali a step behind, Ali said, "You must have lived in China for four years to have such good Chinese!"


“Actually,” I said, “I've been here 12 years.”


Hassan asked, "Where are you from?" and before I could answer, Ali had said “America.”


I didn’t know about Vivian’s conversation and assumed that my accent had given it away. Americans may come in many colors and wear many clothing styles, but English-learners can quickly tell the difference between someone from the US, the UK, Australia, or Europe.


Next, I asked where they were from, and found out that they were from Iran. The conversation didn’t skip a beat, nor did we slow down as I charged down the sidewalk with four new friends close behind. I knew that my wife was already anxious about our late departure for the airport, but I was determined to help if I could, and the rare chance to help someone from their nationality made me even more determined.



(continued in the next column)

As we walked, they told me that they were businessmen, and had been in various Chinese cities over the past 20 days. I said I taught English at a medical university in southwest China, and had come to Beijing for a former student’s wedding. Today (at any moment, actually) I would head to the airport to return to Kunming. They too were nearing the end of their trip, and really hoped to see the Great Wall before going back to Iran.


Down the block, there were no signs for a tour company or tour bus, so I stepped into a convenience store to make inquiries. The clerk said she didn’t know anything about a bus, but there was a travel agent at the other end of the building, so off we went. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to translate everything I was saying back into English, which must have been unsettling for the Iranians, but Hassan radiated a confident, understanding attitude, and stayed with me as we headed for the other entrance.


In the lobby at the other end of the building, I was told to try room 201, so Hassan, Ali and I bounded up the stairs (we had lost the other two at this point; my guess is that they couldn’t speak English and figured that we would eventually have to come back the way we came). Upstairs, there were lots of travel posters in room 201, and a young lady greeted us cordially, but the posters made it obvious that their specialty was trips abroad, not local excursions. Nonetheless, the Chinese woman listened to my brief explanation of our need and offered to help. In the next office, she made a call or two, and soon reported that there were no more tour bus tickets or train tickets available today. “Ming tian zenmeyang?”


“How about tomorrow?” I translated.


“No,” Hassan replied, “tomorrow we go back to Iran.”


After an awkward moment of silence, the travel agent suggested that they take a public bus. I'd seen the 191 terminus at Badaling (the nearest and thus most popular section of the Great Wall), and asked the agent where they could board on the Beijing end.


As she said “Go to Deshengmen,” Ali pulled out his subway map. I translated: “Do you know how to get to the subway?” They nodded. “Take line 10 to line 1, then line 1 to line 2. At Xizhimen get off. Up on the street, ask a traffic policeman to point you toward Deshengmen. The bus will only cost a few yuan.”


I imagined any number of problems along the route, but Hassan simply said, “OK, no problem.”


I wasn’t convinced, so I asked the agent how much it would cost to go to the Badaling section of the Wall by taxi. Again, she politely made a phone call, and reported back that it would cost about 230-250 yuan, depending on the traffic. Divided four ways, this sounded reasonable to the men, so Hassan, through me, asked if she could call a reputable taxi.


“No,” she replied. “Just go out on the street and flag one down.”


“But,” I protested in Chinese, “these men don’t speak Chinese, so I’m afraid that some drivers will cheat them, or change the fare once they arrive, or take them someplace they didn’t intend to go. Don’t you know someone trustworthy who could come pick them up? Who did you just call?”


“Oh, Beijing taxis would never treat a foreigner like that. You just go outside and find any taxi.”


My mobile phone rang, and my wife anxiously notified me that our friend had arrived, we were running late, our suitcase was in the trunk, and they wanted to know where to pick me up. “Just turn right,” I replied, “and you’ll see me at the end of the block.”


Outside, I flagged down a taxi, and said in Chinese: “My friends don’t speak Chinese, but want to go to the Great Wall. How much would that cost?” The driver asked if they wanted to go one way or both ways. “Well, give me an estimate for both.”


“About 900 yuan for both ways,” he replied in Chinese. “About 600 one way.” (So much for 250 yuan!)


Though my friend’s car was now behind the taxi, I argued for a moment, translating salient parts back to the Iranians.


“No,” Hassan said, “we can’t afford 600.”


“Well, how about taking this taxi to Deshengmen?” I asked. “The driver will use a meter, and drop you off where you can catch the bus to the Great Wall. It will save you time over the subway (I hope), and at least you won’t get lost.”


This suggestion was translated into a language I couldn’t understand for the other three, and was greeted with great approval. They piled into the taxi, thanking me profusely for the blur of activity that had just transpired, and adventurously sped off to make their last day in China a memorable one.


At the same moment I jumped into another car, and my only regret was that I couldn’t have done more. It would have been fun to spend the day with them, or to hear about their adventure over a cup of Chinese tea that evening. But alas, my flight was waiting.


The oddity of this Iran-America-China connection didn't really hit me until we drove off in opposite directions. Up to that moment, I'd been too busy to really care about who they were or where they were from or what kind of relationship I was supposed to be having with them. People from three extremely diverse cultures had interacted, and I was the unlikely link. It occurred to me that too often we interact with strangers on the basis of prejudice instead of on any realistic appraisal. I also thought about how much easier it would be for people to get along if they just tried to work on a current objective instead of acting in reaction to decades or centuries of hostility. In most circumstances, these people would have never sought each other, but thrust together we got along just fine.


Core Values, Divine Appointments, and Real Neighbors


I’ve traveled to about twenty countries on five continents, and I’m convinced that it is not the people of the world who put up the walls that divide us. Most people are friendly, or are at least cordial, even to strangers. Sure, there are exceptions, as we saw on September 11 and frequently read about in the news, but the reason we hear about them is that they are exceptions. The constant sensational coverage of these exceptions, mixed with our innate nationalism, create or deepen our international mistrust and fear. Whatever our motives, Hassan, Ali, myself and the Chinese clerks had interacted around a common goal. It all happened so fast that it was almost like an automatic series of events, but surely I would have done just as much for any human being in similar circumstances. If you are thinking, “I wouldn’t have,” then I challenge you to examine your core values—do they promote division in the human family or harmony?


On Tuesday, back in Kunming, my students reacted with amazement to this story, which is understandable considering that America and Iran are not exactly friends. Yet here I was, an American, acting as interpreter and tour consultant to a car load of Iranians. I told my students that, as a Christian, I didn't believe meetings like this occur by accident.  "I believe God planned for me to walk out at just that moment,” I said, “so that I could meet and help these men." Why? That is harder to answer. Maybe it was simply so that this little group of Iranians, Chinese people and Americans could see each other in a different light. Hopefully, when these men think of "America" they will remember the Chinese-speaking guy who went out of his way to help them. Similarly, when I think of Iran, maybe I will not initially remember the Iran Hostage Crisis (that clouded 444 days when I was in college) or wonder if someday they will use nuclear power against their neighbors or against my countrymen; instead, I'll remember a friendly guy who treated me with respect, who had taken the time to learn my language, and who allowed me to act like a neighbor, one day on the streets of Beijing. And maybe, the hotel clerk, travel agent and taxi driver will also look differently at people from both the US and Iran. "If these guys could treat each other like friends,” I hope they will say, “then maybe there is more hope for peace than we’ve been led to believe, between middle-eastern people and western people."


Centuries ago, in answer to the question "Who is my neighbor?", a parable was told about a guy beat up by bandits, laying on the side of the road. Two of his countrymen passed by without being "neighborly," but then a "foreigner" stopped, applied first aid, transported him to a safer place, and made arrangements for the victim's continued care. When Jesus told the story, he didn't end by asking "Who should you treat like a neighbor?" Instead, he asked: “Which one of these three men do you think was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by the robbers?" (Luke 10:36, 37 NCV). After his listener answered, “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus said to him, “Then go and do what he did.”


In other words, our neighbors aren't necessarily the people who live around us or who think like us, but the people who need us in the course of our daily lives. That Samaritan didn't wake up planning to help out someone from a people group who was prejudiced against his own people, but he had the compassion to look beyond his prejudices to help someone in need.


The world would be smaller, safer and more friendly if we all were more willing to “go and do what he did.”

© 2010 Michael Krigline. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print or copy this article, or link to it, for personal or classroom use.

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