I rolled out of bed at 12:30 in the afternoon. I felt down, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Probably nothing more than a bout of traveler’s angst, that sinking feeling of suddenly wondering why the hell you are so far from home, so alone without one friend to share a thought with. Given my mood, I didn’t want to be reminded of all that by stepping outside of my hotel and into a town as foreign as Yangshuo in the Guangxi Province of China.
My traveling companion had left me more than a week earlier, returning to Beijing to see his girlfriend. He was supposed to have rejoined me after a few days, but he had not returned as expected. Nor was he responding to email or telephone calls. Should I wait for him? Should I go on to Yunnan Province, our next destination, by myself and hope he could find me? I didn’t know.
But the sun was shining, a rare occasion in China in the winter, and it was too nice to not go out and enjoy the warmth. I dragged myself out of bed and made a decision to have no expectations for the day. I was just going to sit in the sun and read.
Yangshuo is a tourist destination for many Chinese and some foreigners. It is a little out of the way for many folks because it is in the southern middle of the country and not really on the way to anywhere else. But if you do make it, the countryside around Yangshuo is remarkably beautiful. The city is situated on the Li River which flows through a fantastical karst landscape made famous by unnumbered Chinese painters throughout history. I used to think those weird mountains in the landscapes were imaginative. On seeing them for the first time it was hard to believe that they were not an optical illusion. The mountains rise hundreds of feet from a flat low-lying plane, taking on the strangest shapes. Their height is often two or three times their diameter. Some look as thought they’d blow over in a strong wind.
The city of Yangshuo has a population of 300,000 but, like most urban centers in China, the physical size of the city gives the appearance of holding, maybe, one-third of that population. But for the karst mountains, my first impression upon arriving on Christmas Eve was that I was in Gatlinburg, a garish tourist town in my home state of Tennessee. Yangshuo is bright lights, every manner of cheap trinkets for sale, and a tout for every business. But it grows on you. And the countryside is magical.
I went to my normal breakfast place, Global Bar, just a few storefronts down from the hotel. I’d been in town for a while and all the waitresses knew me and greeted me by name. “Hi Bill, how are you today? We are glad to see you,” said Joan Lin. Her coworker We Lee nodded in agreement.
They spoke basic, faltering English, often with a British accent. So . . . quaint. You know they are pretty much genuine in their concern, even for me, who was, after all, just another tourist in a tourist town. It’s a nice touch.
I had a simple breakfast and headed out into my day of sunshine and reading. Around noon, I received a concerned email from Joan Lin. It read:
Hello! Bill: I am Joan Lin. Do you remember? I always talk with you in my store. In these days, I’m very happy to talk with you. I hope I can continue to talk with you when you go home.
Bill, today look you have something personal. Your heart is go away in your body. What’s matter with you. I worry. I hope you can all the best and every day be happy. Do you understand me, Bill?
I got a heartwarming smile out of that. I was glad we’d traded emails earlier in the week. Her message put me in a better mood.
After reading the email, I walked down to the river via West Street, one of the main tourist thoroughfares. That meant running the gantlet of store owners, tour leaders, and trinket sellers — all of whom would be pushing things at me to buy. I wasn’t in the mood for that. At all. Over my time in China, I had learned to ignore them, to just walk by. It sounds rude, and it took me a little while to get used to it. But if you try to be polite it becomes an invitation for them to push harder, blocking your way, putting items in your hand. When they try this with Chinese people there is no politeness on their part; they just brush them aside.
There is one lady tout at the other end of West Street, sometimes referred to as Foreigner Street, who zeros in on me every time I walk by. She’s middle-aged and dresses plainly. I see her spy me ahead. I try altering my course, putting my head down to ignore her, but she tries to block my way, all the while shouting, “Massaugy, Massaugy, Sex Massaugy.” It drives me nuts, but I just brush by and ignore her cries that follow me down the road. “Sex Massaugy. You want Sex Massaugy???”
I eventually resolved this issue while heading home later that day. Just as she started to come towards me and before she could say a single word, I walked briskly towards her shouting “No Sex Massaugy!!! No Sex Massaugy!!! Not now, not ever!!!” This took her totally by surprise. She burst out laughing, as did everyone else on the street. After that she always acknowledged me with a smile, and never offered her services again.
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But that afternoon, I pushed on towards the river, looking for a nice place in the sun on the boulevard above the Li. I tried two places and each time someone came by and tried to engage me in some scheme to get me to buy something. I had to get up and leave.
Finally I found a place down below the street level. During high-water season this would be a beautiful walk right along the river. Now the river had receded, leaving nothing but a muddy riverbed to look at. I found some steps leading down. There were not too many people down there and I got in some good reading. Still, after a while, a few people walked by. I was on guard for a pitch so I kept my head down, made no eye contact, and, generally, they walked by. Finally, a young woman walked up and asked if she could talk to me. The chapter of the book I was presently reading was about how we automatically make quick judgments about people, and how that often closes off full contact. The book, by the way, is Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s quite good. In it he instructs that one “try to block the judgments and calmly just observe.”
I figured I’d take his advice.
I invited the woman to sit, and she asked if she could ask me some questions. Since I was sitting near the river I expected a pitch to get me on a boat ride. When that didn’t happen, I looked her over. Very attractive. Working girl? I then realized I was again jumping to conclusions, but it often seems that everyone is selling something in China. My mind reached for the odds and I figured there was a good chance that at some point in the conversation, she was going to put on the touch.
She began to ask me questions. “Where are you from?”
I told her I was from Chicago, by way of Tennessee.
“Are you in Yangshuo for long?”
I told her I was passing through.
“How do you like Yangshuo?”
I told her I thought it was lovely.
The questions were innocuous and polite and I felt the percentages changing in favor of just a nice conversation. I had forgotten that there are several English-language schools nearby. I’d heard from Joan Lin and We Lee at the restaurant that the schools often send their students out in the afternoon to find foreigners with whom to engage in English conversation. Completely harmless. Even kinda nice.
As we were talking, an older man approached. He was well dressed. He spoke to the girl. Did he know her? Were they together? Was he a cop? I couldn’t tell. As they spoke, I started to believe that they did not know one another, but she didn’t seem intimidated by his presence, so my fear that he was a cop lessened. After they spoke, she turned back to me and asked a few more simple questions. The man listened politely. He seemed genuinely curious. Then he started to ask some of his own questions. Soon it was he who did most of the talking. His English was significantly better than hers. While traveling in China, I rarely had the opportunity to speak to someone my own age and who seemed of roughly equivalent social status. Now I was curious.
He said he was retired and visiting Yangshuo with his wife on a holiday. He asked the standard questions I had already answered to the young language student. He asked me what kind of work I did. When he understood my answers, he translated for the young woman who had now fallen into a subordinate role. Finally I got around to asking him what kind of work he did prior to his retirement.
He paused. “That is a difficult question.”
He then began to describe the arc of his professional life.
“When I was about twenty, I was a student in a large city. I was rounded up with other students and sent out to the countryside to work with the peasants. It was the time of the Cultural Revolution.”
I had often wondered if I would ever meet someone who had grown up in that era. They would be about my age now. That would make them in their late teens, early twenties in 1965. I would never ask someone directly about that period of history. It would be much too sensitive culturally and politically. Although the prevailing, as well as official, opinion is that it was a big mistake. So, I quietly let him continue.
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“The Red Guard was very active then and we were all very afraid and confused,” he said.
The Red Guard was comprised primarily of young people, revolutionized by — and answering only to — Mao. They were committed to overturning the old ways by force.
By this time another young woman had walked up and introduced herself. She was another language student hoping to talk to someone in English. She let the man continue with his story. He was laughing and translating to the two Chinese women. They got quite a kick out of it. He seemed to enjoy the audience. He pantomimed the Red Guard by repeatedly raising his fist in the air and shouting “Revolution” in an attempt to describe both to me and the young women what he was talking about. As I understand it, young people in China don’t really know much about those days. They get a little blurb on it in history class, but without much analysis.
I knew quite a bit about it though; probably more than the women. But I didn’t let him know that. I wanted to hear it from him, unfiltered. I thought it was a remarkable moment. This man was freely talking to a foreigner about this subject. Let alone with other, younger Chinese listening.
Things in China have really opened up, I thought.
“I was given a Red Star to sew on my sleeve. I didn’t have much idea what it was all about,” he said laughing. “Then I was in the countryside for about two years. After those years, I returned to my city again. I tried to go back to university but I was now older than the other students, and I didn’t have much money. So I joined the army and drove a truck for them for another two years.”
Finally he got back to the university. He studied engineering, which became his career. He indicated that today he is so proud that his two children have done well in university and have good jobs, and how much better life is now in China. I was curious for more details about things that happened in the countryside with the Red Guard, but I decided not to push my luck.
However, I was emboldened to press on a few other political points. I started by asking why there was a statue of Sun Yat Sen, a non-communist, in Yangshuo. I had seen it up above, along the river walk, in a quiet spot.
“Many cities recognize Sun Yat Sen,” he said, “because he is considered the father of modern, free China.”
“What about Zhou Enlai?” I asked. I was curious because I had read that Zhou, who served as the Premier of the People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, had come to be regarded more highly than Mao toward the end of his life.
He paused, and said, “This is also a difficult question.”
He confirmed that for a long time people regarded Zhou highly, as a pragmatist and man of the people, but lately some have been raising questions about his role during that period. He didn’t ever really identify “that” period.
I was on a roll now so I asked about Deng Xiaoping, who effectively centralized power as the Chairman of the Communist Party upon the event of Mao’s death. He served as the leader of China from 1977 until his death in 1997, including, obviously, the time of the 1989 pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square.
“That is a very difficult question,” the man volunteered.
He explained that Deng was regarded highly because he opened China to the West, and allowed people to produce their own products, and that China benefited greatly from this. But then he sent the army to clear away, violently, the students protesting for democracy. Again, I was astounded that a man would refer to those difficult weeks, let alone discuss them, with a foreigner in a public place with other Chinese people listening. Of course, he is retired. If he were forty and in the middle of a career that had any Communist Party connection, he would probably have been more circumspect.
He suggested the Tiananmen incident was a mistake. The students were only mirroring what the general population thought about current corruption.
I countered his point by observing that, in my opinion, the decision to clear the square was a very difficult one for Deng. Deng had been deposed by the Red Guard himself during the Cultural Revolution. These Red Guard were young people of about the same age as the students in the square. Deng’s own son had been pushed out of a window and crippled for life by the Red Guard youth brigades. I noted that Deng gave the speech at Zhou’s funeral, six months before Mao’s death, where he shrewdly compared everything good about Zhou to what people thought Mao lacked.
He and the girls were listening intently. I continued, “Maybe Deng was thinking about the dangerous days of the Red Guard when he gave the order to clear the square of the students in 1989?”
The man thought about this, but he didn’t answer. Nor did he translate for the others. I knew I had gone too far.
So I said, “Well things aren’t always black and white.” I had to explain this saying to all three of them. They seemed to like the concept, and readily agreed.
We moved on to a discussion of medicine with me saying that Chinese practices are becoming more common in America. Chinese acupuncture and herbal remedies were taught in various schools. I couldn’t translate herbal and they weren’t getting it. Finally the second woman used the translation capability on her cell phone. Just about everyone has this on their phone. “Oh, yes, herbal.” Then she translated for the others in the group.
By this time a young man had joined the conversation. He said yes, herbal is best. It is natural medicine. “Pills are not natural. They are bad,” he said. He probably wanted to elaborate this, but his lack of English reduced the comment to “bad.”
I replied that maybe the best was a blend of the two medicines, western technology and Chinese methods. I indicated this by weaving my fingers from both hands together. Suddenly, the older man exclaimed, “Not black and white!” They all laughed and got the idea, repeating “not black and white.” Shortly after this the man said he had to go. I told him how pleased I was to meet him and talk with him. The entire conversation lasted little more than an hour.
After he left the second woman who joined the conversation asked me to walk with her. The rest of the group that had assembled for this ad hoc political conversation was drifting away, so I agreed. Her English was not very good and I was unclear what she was inviting me to do as we walked closer to the docks. There we met a very old woman and a boatman. The old woman rose to shake my hand and they invited me to join them on the small craft. My warning bells started going off and I again began to wonder if this was a scam, some way to get money out of me. I politely declined and they boarded the boat and headed up the river.
Mere moments later, I second guessed my decision. I just had a remarkable conversation and realized that, once again, I let my judgment get in the way of golden opportunity by seeing the world as black and white. Conversation or scam.
It is not black and white. It is not conversation or scam. If you’re paying attention, and if you’re open and without judgment, it all folds together like the fingers of two hands.
I resolved to learn that lesson as I walked back to the restaurant where I’d eaten breakfast. Joan Lin brought me a menu and mentioned that I looked much happier now than in the morning. I thanked her for noticing and began making plans to move on to Yunnan Province in the coming days.
(Click here to buy the latest issue of La Cuadra Magazine, which features another fantastic story by Bill McGowan, for your eBook reader, iPad, or other hand-held device.)