“An Encounter in China” by Karen Frank, Missouri

Travel July 14, 2011 02:24

topic: TRAVEL medium: TEXT

photo by Roberto Ricciuti

We huddled together, a bunch of American tourists in an alleyway in Beijing. A small crowd of people surrounded us. They inhabited this traditional neighborhood, known as a hutong. Not many hutong are left. They have, for the most part, been razed by the government and replaced with modern housing. But the few that remain are tourist attractions as well as refuges for people who wish to retain some scrap of their traditional home life.
We were sightseeing. Arnold, our tour guide, pointed at the people around us, “They ‘re supposed to provide local color,” he said. “Government officials approve of this.” Men, women and children nodded at us and smiled. They posed. They opened their homes for our curious inspection. Really, I thought. I would think that they find this humiliating.
But some hutong residents have figured out a way to retaliate. Tourists know them as ‘dollar people’. They sell souvenirs for an American dollar each. These sales are frequently thinly veiled attacks. They employ all the manipulations of the hard and the soft sell. Government officials approve of this as well, Arnold said.

I’ll bet they do, I thought. As we walked through the narrow passageways, several people ganged up on a
Frank/ Encounter/2 single tourist. They insisted. They poked. They prodded. They wheedled. They cajoled. And the wares they hawked us fell apart almost before we got them back to the hotel. In the midst of the general fracas, a young man rode up on a bicycle. He dismounted and tried to sell us a bamboo erhu, the Chinese single string lute. “Not for play,” he said to my husband in clear, unaccented English, “To put on shelf. Look at. Remember China. Just one American dollar.”
“Can you play?” my husband asked.
“Real one,” the boy said and grinned.
I lost them for a moment, herded away by others. I succumbed to pressure and bought a bamboo fan. Then, through an opening in the densely packed bodies, I saw them. The boy was pushing his bicycle. The erhu dangled from one hand. My husband walked beside him. They were talking.
They were still talking as Arnold led us back to our bus. It was parked on the broad modern boulevard beyond the hutong. The boy rode his bicycle out of the alleyway to see us off. One last time, he proffered the bamboo erhu, grinning. My husband offered his hand, also grinning, and they shook.
It was only later that I discovered that neither money nor erhu had changed hands.

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