China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Hotel lobby encounters.
Date: Fri, 12 Jun 1998 22:41:34 -0700

20:18 Zhongdu Hotel, Pingyao; Shanxi -- China :: FR 12 JUN 98

A few hours this afternoon in the room, hidden away from prying eyes and tapping out the latest. Netscape crash. All is lost. Start again, knowing the original cannot be recaptured.

Chased out of the hotel lobby by curious eyes peeping over shoulder, and curious questions in hesitant english. Not always a problem, but today I want to work. OK, ok, and watch the World Cup on television. Commentary in Chinese.

Hotel lobbies are not the safest place for a traveller. With a small crowd gathered at the reception desk--a modem busily attempting to connect over the telephone is a spectator sport in most parts of China--one man jabbered at me in Chinese. Just wouldn't quit even after repeatedly telling him I didn't understand, "pudong, pudong". It took some effort to coax a translation from the english-speaking reception clerk: "Would you like a Miss?" she said under her breath. "No!" "Bu, bu!" Incorrect, incorrect! And everyone laughed nervously. Under my breath, and only within earshot of the potential pimp, "Bu hao", literally "incorrect good" or "not good" though the meaning is "very bad." If he heard, or understood, he offered no acknowledgement.

It's not always this way. Pingyao is hosting a conference, or seminar, or course. Not really certain which. Young women, fresh out of highschool and studying to be tourist guides are among the attendees, and they've been hanging out in the hotel lobby for a number of days. I'm sitting at a table, trying to write when three or four join me, and begin practicing their english. Three or four becomes five or six, and that grows to seven. Jiaoshi, they call me. Teacher. And so we begin pointing out objects and repeat their names in both english and Chinese.

I try some more difficult concepts, like "fake tree" for the plastic pine tree decorating the lobby. I point to the flower pots outside, "real flowers" and the plastic one in the little 'vase' on our table, "fake flower." Back and forth a couple times. Then 'bu flower' for the fake and 'dui flower' for the real; 'incorrect flower' and 'correct flower' and they chatter amongst themselves in Chinese for a moment, nodding, looks of recognition.

These encounters usually develop around a ringleader, an instigator, the boldest of the group and often the possessor of the best english. The ringleader this time wears a black t-shirt with white lettering "Littll Mtss Sunqine" and a cartoonish giggling girl with both hands covering her widely grinning mouth. Entirely appropriate to her personality. "Not english," I say. "Bu english" I tell her. Incorrect english. We've been using pen and paper to work through the spellings of words so they can pronounce them. I write out the correct spelling, 'Little Miss Sunshine.' "Aaah," they nod. And then, "What it mean?" Hmmmm. This will be harder than it seems.

I could've run upstairs for the Chinese/English dictionary I carry. Most of this would've been straightforward. And it would've undermined all the fun too.

I hold my hands wide apart, "Da." Big.

"Da" is one of a small number of Chinese characters I recognize on sight. It's used often and in combination with another character inflects a sense of greatness or broadness upon the other character's meaning. For example, one pairing of characters, Dagong, means great merit or extraordinary service while the 'gong' character of this couplet alone means attack, or take the offensive.

But "Da" alone means big. When I put my hands close together, I say, "Little." Repeat a couple times. Aaaah, recognition.

Miss is similarly easy. Point at the ringleader and say, "Miss". Point at the eavesdropping doorman and say, "Mr." Repeat a couple times. Aaaah, recgonition.

Sunshine is a little harder, particularly since the sun is certainly not shining outside. Gesticulations and attempts at differentiating between light and dark get nowhere. Then, taking a pen, I revert to something I hope is universal. A little house, chimney smoking. A tree. A round orb with protruding rays. I point to the orb, "Sun." Someone adds a crescent moon, just to make the distinction clear. Aaah, recognition. I point to the rays, "Sunshine." Recognition again.

But they are clever young women who know this is not the whole story. How do you explain what "Little Miss Sunshine" means? "Young, happy girl," I try. Puzzlement. No surprise there. "Happy," I say, stretching the corners of my mouth into a wide grin. A little recognition. A little Chinese chatter. A little more recognition.

Of course, the perfect description stares me in the face. I point at the t-shirt with it's cartoonish young, happy girl--a little ray of sunshine. "Little Miss Sunshine," I say. Aaah, recognition.

But the instigator hasn't forgotten what began the thread. She won't wear the shirt tomorrow. "Why not?" I ask. "Bu chenshan," she replies. Incorrect shirt. Aaah, "bu, bu, bu" I reply. "Bu english, dui Chenshan, hao chenshan." And in a moment of inspiration, drive the point home, pointing first at the shirt, "Little Miss Sunshine" and then at the instigator, "Little Miss Sunshine." "Dui Chenshan." Her friends all laugh merrily, and through the oncoming blush, the instigator is obviously tickled.

It breaks off not long after that, but not before I've autographed seven or eight notebooks and history books, written my address in an address book or two and cornered into the promise of writing to Little Miss Sunshine sometime in the future.

The exact character of an encounter isn't always so easy to discern, even well into the discussion. A couple days ago, writing up some quick responses to email just downloaded over the reception desk phone (usual audience of staff and guests present) a Chinese man approximately my own age struck up a conversation in fairly weak english. We manage several of the pat phrases with minor difficulty. Then we run through my itinerary. Friendly enough, until the next question.

"Can I help you?"

Chinese people display a natural kindness and helpfulness rarely equalled in this world. After receiving excellent directions to a shop selling the solvent I sought, and sending me on my way, the direction-giver worried I still might not find the place. He climbed aboard his bicycle and chased after me and my friend, accompanied us to the store and assisted in the purchase of the solvent.

But he never asked, "Can I help you?" He just did what he thought was necessary. Offering him anything in return would have been received poorly, as something of an insult.

Seasoned travellers read "Can I help you?" depending on the context, and with a close attention to the character of the individual asking. In places frequented by tourists and travellers, places like hotel lobbies, train stations, and outside tourist attractions, one needs to be wary when such a question is asked. There's often a catch. Even in a country so helpful as China.

So I measured this fellow up and decided on evasive. "Oh, I don't think so. I'll go inside the ancient city today and look around. Tomorrow, I'll probably visit Shuanglin Si and then finish off my visit taking sunset photos around the city." For a couple minutes I tried to convey the idea that I'm pretty independent, like to spend a couple days getting a feel for a place before deciding how and whether to delve into it more deeply, and that I'd see him about in the lobby during the week and might approach him later if I could think of any way he could be helpful. The conversation closed soon after that and after a brisk, "Zai Jian," the Chinese "See ya later," I went back to my room confident the situation had been handled.

Well it wasn't quite and though the story is overall a happy one, the man's 'help' cost me 50 yuan, and embarrassed an exceptionally kind and giving high-school english teacher. But that's a long story, deserving of its own posting.

~~~ Responses received like sunshine on a cloudy day ~~~
The Master keeps her mind
always at one with the Tao;
that is what gives her radiance.

The Tao is ungraspable.
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn't cling to ideas.

The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
How can it make her radiant?
Because she lets it.

Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 21.
trans. Stephen Mitchell