In the 1980s, when I first made trips to China, chance encounters with people on the street were usually pleasant, and often humorous.
"Can you sing your national anthem for me?" a young Chinese man once asked me in Tiananmen Square.
"My national anthem?" I asked. "Yes, ‘Jingle Bells,’" he said, surprised that I didn’t know the name.
In those days, if someone said, "Hello, where are you from?" they actually meant it. The conversation that followed may have been brief and superficial, but it was genuine – a tentative step toward getting to know each other’s country.
Today, such greetings are, more often than not, called out by hucksters, hoping to sell you a fake Rolex or lure you into "practicing English" while you pay for overpriced food.
So I was wary when a middle-aged security guard came up to me on the street recently and said, "Excuse me, sir, can you help me?"
He handed me a dog-eared notebook in which he had painstakingly copied English lessons by hand.
He pointed to a sentence: "The amiable soldier is an amateur basketball player."
"How do you say that second word?" he asked.
We went over "amiable" several times, and his pronunciation gradually improved.
He thanked me, and I continued on my way.
I’ve run into him a few more times since then.
Sometimes he asks another English language question. Other times we just chat.
But always he restores my faith in strangers.