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In China, a baby breaks the language barrier

In a Shanghai lane, motherhood connects an old Chinese woman and an American expat.

A lane connects Anfu and Wuyuan roads in Shanghai, China.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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I'd been living on Anfu Road in Shanghai, China, for about six months when I discovered the pedestrian lane that runs between my road and Wuyuan Road. Although the city is full of these longtangs – labyrinthine networks of narrow alleyways lined with low-rise apartment buildings – I was hesitant to use it.

"I feel like I'm walking into someone's home," I told a friend.

"Oh, everyone uses the lanes," she assured me. "It's like a neighborhood back home."

Since moving to China from the United States, I'd missed having a neighborhood where local folks knew my face, my routine, and therefore, a little something about my life. Shanghai is a big, crowded, bustling city, and if you don't dig out a pocket for yourself, you can get swallowed up in a flash.

So one day, feeling brave and a little lonely, I turned from Anfu Road into the lane. At the mouth, four or five cooks from the Sichuan restaurant next door were cleaning potatoes and greens. A little ways down, a woman was hanging her freshly laundered underwear on a line high above me with a broom-length hook. And even farther in, another woman was washing dishes in a communal outdoor sink.

A neighborhood.

Midway down the lane, I saw an old woman sitting on a stool with a bowl in her lap. She was cleaning beans.

"Nihao," I said as I passed.

She didn't even look up.

A few days later, I took the same route. Feeling a little surer of myself, I nodded to the cooks and adeptly avoided getting dripped on by the freshly washed clothes hanging overhead.

Sidestepping a passing bicycle, I saw the same old woman sitting on the same stool in the same spot with the same bowl in her lap. She was sorting greens.

"Nihao," I said, this time a little louder.

She didn't even look up.

So much for being part of a neighborhood, I thought.


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