Gosh, she looks even younger than the other girls, I thought as I watched Bik Liang walk toward me and my handheld name sign at the arrival gate. Over the past week, I had been driving Chinese university students, all female, to their summer housekeeping jobs in Stowe. For most of these young women, this was their first trip outside their homeland — first time on an airplane, even — and they were wide-eyed and excited, albeit exhausted from their 180-degree flight around planet Earth.
I greeted Bik and introduced myself, and she shook my offered hand. Although I imagine that the students participating in this overseas work program are schooled on American customs, she couldn't help but bow slightly as we shook. So I did, too. It came naturally to me.
As we awaited her bag, I threw out a benign icebreaker: "So, you'll be working at the hotel?"
She smiled and surprised me with, "No, I am here for a conference."
Oh. Jeez. Now I felt mortified. Taking her in more closely, I realized that, despite her diminutive stature (five feet at the most) and girlish looks, she was indeed older than the students, not to mention more self-possessed and confident.
I internally debated whether to apologize for my gaffe, but I feared making things more uncomfortable. Plus, it might have been just me — Bik appeared unruffled, though she could have been faking it to spare my feelings. Either way: awkward.
"Oh, that's great," I banally observed. (Sometimes you just need to power through.) "What's the conference about?"
"It's a gathering of environmentalists. I teach in the field at a Chinese university." Her English was heavily accented, though her diction was precise and professorial.
"It's been heartening to hear that China has at least begun to consider the environmental impact of their policies," I said. "For decades, it's all been about growth, growth, growth."
"We must," she informed me. "In some of the cities, people have to wear face masks due to smog. The air and water quality are deteriorating greatly."
We soon cleared the airport, Bik sitting beside me in the passenger seat. We turned right at Taft Corners and cruised unimpeded through the "big-box" alley. I love midnight traffic conditions, I thought. I love making time.
The interstate was bathed in eggshell moonlight, as were the surrounding fields and mountains. I confess that on nights like this, intoxicated by the full moon, I've been known to cut the headlights and drive for 20 seconds in unadulterated moonlight. It's a maneuver a friend introduced to me when we were teenagers, and, once I got past the terror, I was hooked on the feeling.
Observing Bik gazing at all this Vermont glory, I said, "I'm a big fan of those early Chinese poets who were always writing about the landscape. I love their simple, spare use of words."
"Really?" Bik said. She seemed genuinely surprised and impressed. "Which poet do you like?"
"Well, my friend got me a book by Wang Wei. I guess he's considered the father of this tradition."
"Ah, Wang Wei, beautiful. Poets of this school bring a deeper message of harmony with nature. Many were Taoists or Buddhists. Their poetry was an expression of this philosophy."
"I love Chinese traditional culture," I went on. "I sometimes go to traditional Chinese doctors when I'm sick. You know, acupuncture and herbs. And I eat soba noodles and tofu."
Bik chuckled. "It seems you're more Chinese than my countrymen, because, unfortunately, we've abandoned much of the old ways."
I had saved my biggest China card for last. "Also, for years I've practiced tai chi."
Bik found this delightful. "I play tai chi, too, since I was a girl. My grandparents taught me."
"When I think of tai chi in China, I picture the old people practicing in large groups in public parks."
"They still do that," my customer acknowledged, "but young people also play tai chi."
"So some aspects of traditional culture are still intact and vital. That's good to hear."
Bik again gazed up at the moon, the same orb contemplated by Wang Wei 1,300 years ago. She said softly, "Modern people look outward to find meaning and enjoyment, visiting amusement parks, traveling all over the world. But just sitting quietly can be far more interesting."
"I know what you're talking about. In fact, I think we may be kindred spirits. Do you practice sitting meditation?"
"Not so much," she replied. "I read books about it. I like that."
I chuckled in empathy. It's hard to meditate. Anyone who's tried it will confirm that.
"Bik, you can't just read about it," I gently razzed her. "It's like reading a menu. At some point, you need to make a choice and eat the food!"
"I believe what you're saying," Bik said, laughing. "It's time to eat!"
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.