Last month we were in Sweden for three weeks, and the reason was not only because we were involved in the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations That Matter in Karlskrona, but also because we needed to sort out some bureaucracy in Stockholm. Since we are planning to move to Shanghai for work by the end of the year, Narayan needed to have his MSLS diploma translated and validated at the Chinese Embassy in the country where his graduate school is located.
It was more complicated than we thought, but everything got sorted after making two trips to the embassy. On the first day there, something happened that I’ll never forget.
The embassy area in Stockholm is located near a beautiful island called Djurgården, where you can easily stumble upon tons of breathtakingly beautiful castles and museums. Visiting a highly recommended art gallery on a sunny day sounded like a brilliant idea, so we walked for 40 minutes in the woods to the gallery after we left the embassy. Everything was great except that we were greeted by a closed front gate. Ugh, it was Monday! By then we were both starving and wanting to go home, but here’s the problem – you can’t take the bus without purchasing your ticket beforehand with an app, or using the transportation card that you can top up (which we didn’t have). What we also didn’t have was a SIM card with 4G, so we had no way of getting online to use the app.
It would have taken 2.5 hours to walk home, which was not an option considering how hungry and tired we were. After walking everywhere searching for WiFi to no avail, we approached the bus driver and confided in him that we really couldn’t pay for the bus ticket. “No worries, come on in,” said the friendly driver, granting us a free ride.
After being on the bus for a while, a Chinese-looking elderly man got on. It’s rare to see an Asian face here so I took notice of him. He was using a walker, which Narayan helped secure. Suddenly, he started talking to a white guy sitting next to him in Mandarin. “What’s this stop?” Confused, the guy looked at him and looked around. It seemed that no one knew what was going on. The grandpa took out a piece of paper from his pocket and went on: “I need to go to XX station…this is my home address, can you help me go home?”
At that point it was pretty obvious that I was the only one who understood him. I walked up to him and took a look at the address. Of course I didn’t know where that was…it was my first week in the city! Without a SIM card I couldn’t use Google Maps either, so I resorted to the other passengers. It turned out that the bus wasn’t gonna take us there. It required getting into the subway and taking a communal train for more than half an hour to get to where he wanted to go.
As the bus pulled into the terminal station, everyone left but the grandpa and us. We decided to go into the subway station with him and try to find someone who could help. It took me a while to figure out the route with the help of a subway staff, and I tried to explain to grandpa that he needed to take an elevator to Platform 3/4 and see which train would come first. He not only had difficulty understanding me, but hearing me as well – I believed he had age-related hearing loss.
Alternatively, I asked the staff if he could take the grandpa to the platform and make sure he got on the train. “No, I can’t.” Surprised, I told him according to the grandpa, on his way here there was a man with a yellow vest who helped him. “Yeah, but usually you need to call in advance.” I was a bit pissed off to be honest. What’s this obsession with reservations and planning ahead? You need to plan ahead to use the laundry machine in an apartment complex, plan ahead to get help in the subway, and even to get an adapter in an electronic store smaller than a regular 7-11 you need to take a ticket and pay when your number’s called (there was literally no one else waiting but me). If human beings were machines, planning everything perfectly would make sense. But we’re not. We’re flesh and blood, and to tell an 83-year-old grandpa that he can’t get help because he didn’t plan ahead? I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“We’ll take you there,” I told him. At least the staff let us enter the station with him! While waiting for the train, he told me his story.
He came as an immigrant from China to Sweden 37 years ago, giving up his Chinese citizenship in exchange for a Swedish passport. He lives with his daughters in the outskirts of Stockholm. Because of his old age, walking difficulty, and the fact that he just recently tripped and got himself a bump in the head, his daughters wouldn’t let him go back to China to visit relatives, and they refused to help him get a visa. And that’s how we were able to meet him today – he sneaked out of the house to go to the Chinese Embassy by himself when his daughters were at work. Unfortunately, after going through all the walking, taking the train and the bus, his courage wasn’t rewarded or appreciated. The embassy still wouldn’t issue him a visa without his daughters’ consent. He did all this for nothing. Just as I was feeling really sad for him, he went on. “I have two biggest regrets in life, that I never visited Taiwan, or the US.”
“What a lucky coincidence to run into you today!” he said, with a big smile on his face.
“Are you sure you know how to walk home after you exit the station, grandpa?”
“Yeah, it’s really close. Don’t worry.”
The train came, and we helped him get on. We also made an announcement to everyone in the train about the station he needed to get off at, and we asked them to kindly make sure he’s okay. A few nodded. As the door was closing, grandpa was still standing there thanking us and saying goodbye. To my delight, a lady came to the door and gently put her hand on his arm, trying to help him find a seat.
This encounter reminds me once again of the wonders of the Universe. It’s as if every moment is perfect, and everything that’s happening is the only thing that could have.
Everything had to happen exactly the way it did for us to be there for the grandpa when he needed us. If there had been a delay in any of the events leading up to the moment we met him, if there had been too many people at the embassy, if the gallery had been open, or if the bus driver hadn’t let us ride without a ticket…we wouldn’t have been able to help this man who tried to find his way home in the capital of Sweden. However, I wonder, where is “home” to him? Is it the station half an hour of train ride away, or the land he had left 37 years ago?