China in your hands

W Chinach, oddzielonych od nas (dosłownie i w przenośni) murem, można również porozumieć się po angielsku.

I’m standing in the street in the city of Guelin, southern China, some 1000 kms north of Hong Kong. I’ve just stepped out of my hotel and am surrounded by millions of Chinese (figuratively speaking – there are only 5 million in this city). It’s first impression time. The air is cool and damp and has been these several days. Few cars on the streets, but a multitude of cyclists. I’m taller than anyone around me, my clothes are different, my attitude as well, I suppose. I have the look of a tourist.

The rain is coming down now, a steady drizzle. People pass, a babble of voices. I don’t understand anything. I have two words in Chinese, Mingoy – Thank you and Gwilow – white ghost, which all non-Chinese, especially pale faced, straight-eyed, meat eating, Europeans are called. People stare at me, girls passing in groups giggle, so I move on. I’ve been told not to wander far, but I feel no menace or danger here. The hotel is behind me, the River Li and the boat we are supposed to take today just across the road. I have come from Hong Kong for the River Li trip and to visit and photograph the region. So far, three days, its been raining, the sky a grey mantle over this corner of China. I’m part of an entirely Chinese package tour of about 20 people. No one speaks English but I have been well looked after by my fellow travellers. In the hotel a few of the staff speak English, so most of the time I just followed the group leader’s waved instructions, (she did most of the talking, so I presumed she was the leader). Our group has been organised especially for the River Li trip and I wanted to go with Chinese people only, hence the somewhat isolated situation I have found myself in.

It’s a strange, at times unsettling experience not being able to communicate. I walk around in a bubble of my own thoughts and impressions. But it’s all very friendly. My group just points things out to me or give me things to eat. They seem to think that gwilos require a lot of feeding! I’m their mascot, their pet.

I see no other Europeans in the crowd. To the horizon a sea of faces topped with black hair. No blondes, brunettes, red heads. There is a smell of cooking coming from some of the food stalls. People call out to me in Chinese. Ismile, shrug my shoulders. Hands out, palms up, in the universal language of ‚Peace to you brother but I don’t understand aword you’re saying’. Then out of the crowd a man comes up to me. He is fairly ragged and pushing a broken down bike.

”Ello,’ he says. ‚Whereareyou fom?’
The words are all rolled together but the pattern is their, understandable above the babble. It’s English.
‚I’m from Scotland,’ I say, wondering whether he’ll know where that wonderful country is.
‚Oh America.’
‚No. No. Scotland. That bit of England at the top, you know. England to the north.
Very beautiful.’
‚Ah England. You English.’
‚No.’ I begin explain but stop. ‚OK. OK. English.’ It’s sounds like some of the English lessons I’ve been giving. This one real life though. A few people in the crowd around us are listening, perhaps they are curious about me and hope to learn where this tall, dark, stranger has come from? Still, I’m very happy, a line of communication has been thrown out and I have to hold onto it. I’m thinking of a suitable subject. The weather. What do you do? Where are you from, when the man asks,
‚Yes, Yes of course.’ The crowd press closer. What can I say, I’m outnumbered. And it’s true in many ways. I’m not sure though whether I would be able to survive in this mass off humanity if I were to be cast out here into these populated streets. Its rather frightening in a way. I have a vision of an ants nest and this is just a small provincial town.
‚You stayyourself?’ he asks. He has an assured air.
‚Yes with a group of visitors in the hotel.’ I point at the building. The little gathering around me turns to the hotel. There are murmurs of commentary. I want to move so start walking and the man and his bike follow. A few others saunter with us. The man with the bike looks me over. He has a weather worn face. I would like to take a picture of him but before I can ask he says,
‚You wanna girl. My sister. Vely beautiful. You buy. Vely good.’
I realise that this is perhaps a rehearsed conversation.
I decline his offer and he strolls away, his English finished. A woman shouts at me, waving a bottle of Evian, ‚Water. Water.’ I look up at the weeping skies, point and reply, ‚Water. Water.’ She laughs and the people around her laugh with her as well. I’m left alone for a second contemplating the river and the few boats on it. I’m not left long with my thoughts though.
Another bike is being pushed towards me.
‚Come with me. Nice paintings.’ The man is younger and as impoverished looking as my previous escort.
What do I do? I ask myself, as I follow him down a grim alley.
‚You English. I speak.’ He has holes in his tee shirt. ‚I painter.’ Sure enough at the bottom of the passageway we enter a large hanger lit by neons and filled with the most wonderful and colourful Chinese water colours and prints. A few people are wandering about but no whites.
I’m walking around, my painter friend as guide, when another better-dressed person comes up. The man says, with a flourish of his hands,
‚You like. Not expensive,’ though no prices have been mentioned.
‚Painters work here. Sell to people. Good quality.’ He shows me some prints but it would take days to wade through all the paintings and statues and porcelain and jewellery I see now. I put up my hands. Another universal gesture, this one meaning: Stop or Back off. Give me air. Some room.
‚I’ll walk around and have a look. There are so many things here,’ I say to him. I’m not sure whether he is disappointed or not. It is very difficult to read the face of a Chinaman. That’s what makes them so successful in business I remind myself.
Eventually I buy a small print and leave. I turn for a last look at the extraordinary place. The neon lights are a green pall in the room giving faces a deathly mask like appearance. The young man follows me with his bike right up to the hotel. I realise at the entrance that my escort has to be tipped for his service.
‚Thank you very much.’

I give him a note and he disappears into the crowd. I climb the stairs slowly and pass through the revolving doors in search of my group. Im also wondering what the next few days in China will bring? What shall I see? Who will I meet? And how will we understand one another?

But thats another story.

by: Zygmunt Nowak-Soliński


figuratively przenośnie
damp wilgotny
attitude postawa
drizzle mżawka
babble gwar
giggle chichot
menace zagrożenie
mantle powłoka
to wave machać
to presume przypuszczać
to shrug wzruszać (ramionami)
ragged obdarty
to outnumber przewyższać liczebnie
to be cast zostać rzuconym (w jakieś miejsce)
to saunter przechadzać się, spacerować
rehearsed wyćwiczony
to stroll przechadzać się
impoverished zubożały
grim ponury
with a flourish z rozmachem
to tip dawać napiwek