This afternoon, while sitting on a bench in the sun at the temple on Lantau Island, I have my first conversation in Putonghua (Mandarin). I understand almost half of what the older woman sitting next to me is telling me, and I feel proud of myself.
I am sitting on this bench to give me upper legs a little rest. Today it’s the 19th day of the 9th month in the Chinese Lunar calendar – the day on which Buddhists celebrate the Enlightenment of the bodhisattva Guanyin. I arrived at the monastery around 8am this morning, after travelling for nearly two hours. I came in during a ceremony and joined in. All in all, I believe I have already done more than a hundred kowtows this morning, and I’ve been kneeling for minutes on end, confessing sins. The muscles in my upper legs are paining me, and there is still a long ceremony to join this afternoon!
So I am sitting on the bench, resting my legs, enjoying the sun and watching the many tourists that all seem to make the exact same pictures of the temple comple. Then an older Chinese lady walks my way, sits next to me, and starts talking to me in Cantonese. I tell her I don’t speak Cantonese, and she switches to Putonghua. We talk. Or at least: she talks, and I listen and try my very best to understand what she is saying. Every now and then she asks me a question, and in small words (not full sentences yet) I answer.
Then, she reaches into her bag and takes out a string of 108 dark red praying beads. She explains to me how to pray with these. She tells me what it means. She asks me about my family (baba, mama, gege, jiejie) and manages to make me understand that praying the 108 beads every day will benefit their health, careers, wealth and all other things.
I thank the lady for the conversation, which has made me feel good. She spoke very clear Putonghua, very slowly – and I could understand her generally.
But that is not all I am grateful for: before the lady stands up to leave and go back into the temple for the next ceremony, she gives me the prayer beads. The beautiful dark red beads light up in the sun.