China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: The English Teacher
Date: Tue, 07 Jul 1998 22:41:32 -0700

23:26 Linfen Hotel, Linfen; Shanxi--China :: MO 15 JUN 98

I've traded cool Beijing spring for the encroaching summer humidity in central China. Cycling through the day grows increasingly taxing as midday sun charges up an early afternoon heat. Today, in Pingyao, it chases me back into the hotel for a siesta.

The telephone rings, rings again, and again, and again, then stops. I've forgotten to disconnect it. Here in Pingyao, I haven't needed to. In other places, other hotels, I've answered the insistent rings. On the other side a voice streams incomprehensible chinese.

"Bu dong," I respond, "don't understand."

"Ni budong?" The voice asks, "You don't understand?"

Correct, "dui, wo budong," I don't understand.

Another sream of Chinese.
"Wo budong Zhongwen," I don't understand chinese.

"Ni budong?"


Another stream of Chinese. I cut it off mid-stream.
"Do you understand english? I only speak english."

"Wo budong," comes the reply.

"Ni budong?" I ask, hopefully.

"Dui, wo budong."

"Aahhhh," an affirmative vocal gesture.

With the impasse established, the conversation ends. I'm left with a dial tone.

In my Pingyao hotel room on a hot, lazy afternoon, the phone rings again, four times, then stops.

So I ignored the phone and it soon stopped ringing. Then rang again. Stopped. Rang. Stopped. I rose, waiting for it to ring again. It didn't. I lay down again, waiting for the next ring. I drift.

Then there's a knock on the door. And another.

Most binguan class hotels here have a control panel in the bedside table from which the lights and electronics in the room can be switched on or off, and the bedside lights dimmed. Some of these also control the light illuminating a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside the room's door. I'm pretty sure the mandarin characters appearing above the english "Do Not Disturb" translate to "Knock Louder; I'm Sleeping." Still, if the technical service of the staff is somewhat lacking by western standards, there's no faulting their enthusiasm. Well, sometimes there is, like in Huo Zhou where every ten or fifteen minutes someone dreamed up another service they could perform for the laowai in room 217. The Huo Zhou Binguan rooms are equipped with a deafening doorbell.

But a knock on the door in Pingyao was unusual. I'd been there two days without disturbance. So I start pulling clothes back on, yelling "Just a minute!" Yes, I know they don't understand a word I've said, but if you say, "Yes?" they may understand the word and take it as an invitation to enter. And they'll use a key if the door is locked. "Just a minute!" with the slightest note of desperation in it seems to hold them at bay. Still pulling on my shirt, I open the door and...

Well, it's not hotel staff. A man and a woman. Waitaminnit. It's the "Can I help you?" guy from the lobby this morning. Except I've completely forgotten the bit about "Can I help you?". That is, I've got no idea why he'd be knocking on my door with a woman in tow, and I'm sure this registers on my face.

"Er..." I stammer. Awkward silence. I finish pulling on my shirt. "Ni Hao," I say. "Hao!" they reply. More awkward silence. I realize they expect to be let in. I back away from the door, into the room, clear a couple chairs. I'm wondering if this is a social call. More awkward silence after they take their chairs. Finally, the woman says in pretty good english, "How may I be of service to you?"

20:35 Express Train; Beijing -> Xian -- China :: TU 07 JUL 98

Hmmm. I automatically reply, in as light a tone as my confusion allows, "No, how may I be of service to you?"

A pause.

Now there's confusion on her face too. She looks at Mr. "Can I help you?" then at me, then at him again. Then at me.

In the next few minutes the three of us sort out that this is the help I'd been promised earlier, that Mrs. Wong is an english teacher in Pingyao's secondary school and that in exchange for no more than the opportunity to practice her english she will gladly escort me around Pingyao on a tour of its sights. "Not for money," she repeatedly confirms.

China's "economic miracle" is currently side-stepping Pingyao, and quite a few other towns and counties across the country as well. After leaving Mr. "Can I help you?" in the lobby earlier that day I wandered into the heart of Pingyao for a look see. "Hello! Where are you from?" A man in his late thirties or forties, astride a rusted but serviceable bicycle. Plain navy jacket and pants, worn shoes, white shirt, an easy smile. Very good english. He dismounted and we walked together talking about this, that and the other. The Catholic church was new but the Catholic faith long established. On the order of 2,000 Catholics in Pingyao county, perhaps 1,000 Protestants, a few hundred buddhists. Yes, he'd been born here, raised here, lived with his mother near the Catholic church where they went to mass every Sunday. Fascinating. "And what do you do for a job?" I asked him.

"I'm unemployed."

Traveler's radar switches on: yellow alert.
He paid for a pedicab license, but there are more pedicab drivers than riders. Out of the crowd appears his 'sister' and she leads the bicycle away so he can accompany me without its hindrance.
Proceed with extreme caution.
He explained a little about the architecture (Ming and Ching primarily, 14th-19th century--and some Yuan and Song remnants, 10th to 13th century) and brought me into a few antique shops, ("Sure," I told him, "although I won't be buying anything." Keep on your toes, Patrick.)

I am wary due to anecdotal advisories from guidebooks and other travellers and my own experiences. Repeated experience: this weekend Vivian accompanied me to the Jinsong antique market in Beijing. She helped negotiate the price of a particular piece of Chinese calligraphy to be paired with another piece I'd purchased from the same shop a few weeks earlier on another sojourn with other Beijing friends. One of those friends negotiated tenaciously, talking the merchant down to the seemingly impossible price of 40 Yuan. This time around it appeared Vivian easily got the same price. Only later did she tell me the whole story. "Tell him the price is 100 Yuan and I'll give you a 30 Yuan kickback," the merchant said at one point. Vivian just looked at her for a moment, then responded.

This is my friend. I'm taking no money from him. In fact, I paid for the gas to drive him here. It's hot; I'm tired; our price is 40 Yuan. If you ask for 50 Yuan, we'll leave.
The merchant capitulated immediately. 40 Yuan. About $5 US.

While wrapping up the sale, the merchant explained to Vivian the realities of antique shopping in Beijing:

The first asking price for the piece we'd just bought is 350RMB for Chinese buyers and 3,000RMB for foreigners; the merchant once made a sale totalling $6,000 US to a foreigner and all but $1,000 of it went to the Chinese guide/friend who negotiated the sale on behalf of the hapless tourist.
Let the buyer beware.

Here in this Pingyao antique shop there are only trinkets and baubles. Nothing of real interest or historical merit, or if there is, neither the guide nor the merchant can provide the stories. To the credit of both of them, there is no attempt at the hard-sell.

We move onto a few of Pingyao's numerous old family homes. I feel as though I'm walking into people's back yards, which is essentially what we do. The residents appear unperturbed by the intrusion. There is no charge. My friend/guide is pleasant, thoughtful but not able to provide much context. I learn a little about the current inhabitants, but not much about the history. "Ming." Or "Ching." That's about the extent of it.

After the fourth old home the midday heat settles in: time for a siesta. I thank my guide for his company, complement his english and bid my adieus. He asks if I'm interested in seeing some of the county's prettier villages. We could take a bus later in the afternoon. He'd be glad to take me on this tour if I can "help him out."

I don't know, I'm feeling magnanimous. "I'm not interested in seeing the villages," I tell him, "but you've been kind and helpful and I understand your situation." I give him the change in my pocket. About 11RMB. A buck forty US. And say goodbye--zai jian--before heading off for the nap that's now been interrupted by Mr. "Can I help you?" and The English Teacher.

She lives in a tourist town and knows these scams and wants no association with them. She's an english teacher who has rarely spoken english with a native speaker and is grateful for the opportunity to do so. "No money," she says, "I just want to practice my english." I agree to meet her later in the afternoon, 4 O'clock downstairs in the lobby. I thank Mr. "Can I help you?" for the help, for introducing me to Mrs. Wong, and see them to the door where we exchange "zai jian"s.

Strip off the hot, clingy clothes and back to the siesta.

~~~ Responses appreciated ~~~
There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.

The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.

Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 25
trans. Stephen Mitchell