A couple of days ago I found myself in the vicinity of Maizidian Road, home to a truly outstanding dumpling restaurant. It was midday. My only trouble was, I couldn't quite remember which way to turn on the Third Ring Road after emerging from the metro. So, I asked a passing woman for advice, and it turned out that she was headed for Maizidian as well.
At first we walked along in a kind of companionable silence. Then I asked her what she was doing in Maizidian. I thought she was probably going to meet a friend for lunch, or perhaps she was heading back to work after a morning out, or something like that, but she told me that she was going to visit her father in the hospital.
I didn't like to ask what the matter was, so I asked his age instead. The answer surprised me. I'd have thought my companion was some years older than me (and perhaps she was) but her father turned out to be nine years younger than mine.
She explained that they were from Inner Mongolia. I still didn't like to inquire too closely about her father, so instead I asked if she thought they would be able to get home for the new year. She said no, that seemed unlikely. "They still have to take the tumor out. It looks like it will be a while before he can stand up to surgery, and then after that -- you know."
Thinking perhaps I might take her mind off things for a minute, I told her, "You know, when most Americans hear the name 'Inner Mongolia,' it conjures up quite a romantic image."
She laughed. "Galloping horses."
"Yes, and grasslands, with the grass waving in the wind."
We parted at an intersection. I wanted to ask her to pass my greetings on to her father, but somehow I didn't get a chance. I suppose she must have gone straight into the hospital, probably up some stairs, past a nurses' station, into a ward. Or maybe she stopped and bought some flowers or a card.
Earlier that morning I had met a young man who volunteers at his local hospice, bringing medicine to terminally ill patients, sitting and chatting with them to raise their spirits. "I've learned that some people are unlucky," he said.
My dumplings were delicious: wood ear, forest mushroom and bamboo shoots in one kind, garlic chive in another. Not too far away, a daughter was sitting by her father's bedside. They won't be able to get home for the new year. I don't think I really have anything to say about that. I just wanted to mention it.