China Browne Summary
China Browne is sitting in a railroad station lounge, reading and absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of her surroundings. English-language travel posters on the wall behind the ticket counter reveal that she is in China. She has been in the country only three days, but the harried American couple who soon join her in the Beijing lounge are beginning their second year as teachers in China. When the heavily burdened teachers learn that China Browne—carrying only an overnight pack—is going their way, they impose on her to carry their heaviest piece of baggage.
As the three Americans head down the crowded stairs of the Beijing terminal for the departure platform to Tianjin, China finds herself behind an old Chinese woman. The woman, wearing peasant clothing and a visored cap with a red star, has traditionally bound feet; she is carefully descending the steps, not realizing that China is helping her by slowing the surging crowd behind them. A moment later China smiles at her, but the woman, who recognizes her as a foreigner, reacts with suspicion.
China continues her friendly overtures toward the old woman, introducing herself in Chinese and offering assistance, but is sorely repaid for her efforts: The old woman calls her a “foreign devil” and shouts irrational accusations at her. China feigns imperturbability and is admonished by the seasoned American couple not to befriend the Chinese. Inwardly, however, she wonders how to promote harmony in these unfamiliar circumstances. Her instincts ordinarily allow her to “overturn mistrust and suspicion”; but “with no natural cues to the humor” around her, she has to work harder than usual.
On arriving in Tianjin, China lags behind the two American teachers so that she may see the old woman again. She watches the woman cross the street and head down the rough concrete steps leading to the cool riverside. At the bottom level, the woman trips and falls into the river. Chinese passersby seem indifferent: As the woman struggles vainly to pull herself out onto the concrete walkway, no one moves to help her. China pulls the woman out herself, and this time is rewarded with a smile. She lovingly unbinds the woman’s feet, massages her toes, and dries them with her bandanna, “the same cloth she [often] drew between her own toes in meditation.” Both women rest briefly by the river. For the moment, time stands still, even moves backward. In this interlude, China finds harmony and relief from the crush of time. The two women part friends, and the old woman gives China two gifts: her cap with the red star and a small round metal herb box. Finally, China is rudely returned to the fast-paced time of the Americans’ “measured world” when the two teachers find her and scold her for the delay and anxiety that she has caused them.