A Lesson in Guilin
I never taught English in China. In fact, other than a little shipboard course in travel writing I have never taught English anywhere. I doubt that a very brief experience in Guilin sometime in the early 1990s qualifies as “instructional,” although it certainly was a learning experience for me.
It was Summer in Guilin and in this part of China that typically means hot and humid days and nights, a time when the mostly un-air-conditioned denizens of this quaint city are out trying to catch a soothing breeze off the jade-hued Li river that it bestrides. We mostly know Guilin from those paintings of fluffy karst mountains fading into the mist that we believe are the artist’s manner. Until we visit Guilin and recognize that the optical effect of the peaks fading into the distance—an effect that DaVinci called “areal perspective”—is the painted reality of the steamy climate. Guilin has a slightly off reality feeling to it
Our hotel was on the waterfront that, in the evening, was a bustle of activity. Families out walking and having a cool drink or ice cream, people lined up at docks on the river for evening rides or to watch the cormorant fishermen fish with their birds from sampans, and impromptu tables and stalls set up selling food, house wares, souvenirs and “antiques.” It was a long, paved pedestrian corniche for leisurely strolling, shopping and people watching.
I was Guilin as part of a “fam trip”* in China several years ago when my traveling companion Sue whispered to me as we were inspecting the wares of some stalls on the Li River quayside in the late evening: “We’ve been being followed for the past fifteen minutes. There are two men over your left shoulder. No! Don’t look! They’re staring at us now.”
This was a few years before the American paranoia that was set in motion by 911 that has given us the Patriot Act and the NSA authority to spy on its own people as well as others, so we still thought it was other countries, particularly the communist countries, that engaged in espionage.
We moved on to another stall and I walked around the other side of it to snatch a look at the two “spies”. There were two men, short in stature, probably in their late thirties, dressed in the thin white cotton shirts, worn loose over the plain baggy trousers commonplace on men throughout China. They were unremarkable in any other respect than the thinner of the two had that lean handsomeness of Zhou En Lai. Perfect cover for spies. But I didn’t think they were spies, or even interested in us.
“Yeah, we should have left our plans for our new intercontinental missile system back in the hotel room,” I said, dismissing her concern.
“No really, they keep following us and staring at us; they keep getting closer and closer,” she insisted.
“Maybe they’re just pickpockets. Just keep a good hold on your bag.” I advised, unconcerned. “Anyway, you know how unabashed the Chinese are about staring at foreigners. Two gray-hairs like us must seem like extraterrestrials to some of these people.”
But as we walked on they did indeed continue to follow us, moving when we did, stopping as we did. But the quayside was busy with people, and the likelihood of their trying anything, even a purse-snatching, seemed remote. Nevertheless, my cautious instincts were now aroused.
A few minutes later, at a stall where I was examining a small abacus that was cleverly “antiqued” to allow the vendor to say “Tang. Tang Dynasty” When I picked it up, I felt the telltale wallet-probing “bump” of a pickpocket on my left buttock. Nerves already on alert I wheeled to grab the offender, but instead of grabbing a larcenous arm or hand I came up with a little shaven head that reached only as high as my waist. In fact, I would not have been able to grab an arm or a hand. The little boy whose head I quickly released had no arms at all.
What he did have was a bright, warm smile on a cute, if somewhat mischievous face. He spoke a few phrases of the local dialect of which I had no comprehension, but I did notice a small cloth bag hanging from a cord around his neck. He repeated his words and this time motioned downward with his head, looking at the bag and then up to me.
“I think he wants you to put something in his bag,” Sue said. The lady behind the table at the stall said something that might have meant the same in Chinese. Her voice had a high-pitched scolding tone in it, so she might have been admonishing the boy.
Other than my camera I had only money, having neglected to bring the ballpoint pens I usually carried to give to kids. I dug into my pocket for some of the smaller “foreign exchange certificates” or FEC that China required us to use in those days, and tucked them into the little fellow’s bag.
“Xie xie, xie xie ni,” he said, his smile now even wider. Then he bumped his little shaved head against my hip a couple of times, smiled and dissolved into the crowd.
“Do you think he was a Thalidomide child?” I asked Sue. She had worked for years with kids with disabilities in American schools and would know.
“No, he’s too young, and his arms are completely missing, not stunted or atrophied,” she pointed out. What an extraordinary boy, I thought, with such a genuine smile for someone so disabled. An afterimage of his engaging smile lingered in my mind. But now we were walking on down the quay, and the “spies” lingered as well, more corporeally.
Sue was getting more nervous about them and suggested we not press our luck and head back to the hotel, but I didn’t like that fact that they were intimidating us. “I’m gonna confront them,” I blurted, surprising even myself, and I could hear her objection behind me as I turned impulsively and strode as menacingly as I could in their direction.
They were leaning against a tree, one of them smoking a cigarette, and seemed quite surprised that I was heading straight at them. The smoker, who looked like Zhou En Lai, quickly tossed his cigarette aside and some fleeting thought flashed that I was about to get into it with two government spies that were expert martial artists. But the adrenaline was pumping and I was committed.
Just about to open my mouth to thunder: “Alright you two cowboys, just what the hell do you think you’re doing following . . .” when one of them forced a smile on his face, a silver-crowned incisor catching a glint of the streetlamp.
“Heh-row, heh-row,” he said nervously, but cheerily, “soooah nice to make yerrr aquaintrance.” Then, without missing a beat, as though he had been rehearsing his words, he quickly, but carefully added: “Sir, I am teacher of Engrish, excuse prease, EngLISH (with lingual effort), in Guilin high-school. My correague and I are preased to meet you.” His nervous haste obviously forced him into the almost “classic” tongue-twisters English presents to Chinese; the “Rs” and the “Ls” causing difficulty for people whose native tongue is articulated from further back in the mouth. He extended his hand and I could feel the tension drain out of me.
Our reciprocal civilities completed, for the remainder of the evening we had the company of our two “spies” who were interested only in eavesdropping to acquire the secret of our American-accented English. My bold assault now provided them an opportunity for real conversation. We walked along the quay in the balmy Guilin evening answering questions about vocabulary, grammar and syntax, rather than being tortured for the locations of American missile silos in Montana or handing over Strategic Air Command codebooks.
Our “spies” were friendly, humorous, and grateful for the time we took with them, especially since they had never been out of China and only rarely had an opportunity to speak with “native” English-speakers. But before we parted with mutual good wishes, I had to ask them about the little boy without arms. Did they know him? They certainly had observed my encounter with him.
They smiled and said the boy’s name. Of course, they knew him, they said. He is a boy who lost both his parents and both his arms, in a fire in his home. He is now cared for by all the neighbors on the street where he lives with one of the families. He is well-fed and clothed, and goes to school with the other children they assured me, but “he needs a little money, too” they explained for some necessities.
Later, as we were about to board a boat to observe the fishermen who use trained cormorants to do their fishing for them we saw the armless little boy again, bumping his head against tourists and trying to make himself understood. He smiled over but did not importune for a second contribution.
I had asked one of the English teachers the Chinese word for ”kindness.” He pronounced it a few times for me, but I could only roughly jot it down phonetically in my notebook afterward. Back home I was able to look it up on a Chinese language website. There are actually several words for “kindness” in Chinese, the general one shi-en, meaning to “bestow favor.” But among the several others, I was pleased to discover a more specific word for “kindness,” ci’ài—it was the sound the teacher had repeated to me—and the specific meaning given is “devotion (to children); affection, esp. towards children.” Good teacher, that “spy.”
© 2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.15.2015)