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“Can I help you? Can I walk with you and practice my English?” I was standing on a busy street corner in downtown Shanghai peering at a map in my Rough Guide, trying to figure out how to get to a local restaurant recommended for its unique cuisine when I heard those familiar words. I looked up and there he was: well-dressed, blue suit, white shirt and tie, black hair slicked down, leaning toward me, politely smiling. I knew by now he was yet another of those ambitious young men I had encountered on my travels these last two weeks. They had all asked that same question: “Can I help you? Can I walk with you and practice my English?” Many of them, I learned, were planning to visit the United States and I was a learning opportunity for them. But so were they for me.
It was 1988, and China, still animated by the iconoclastic energies released in the long aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, was encouraging exchange programs with the West. Having successfully applied, I had been ecstatic to find myself in Beijing, on the other side of the globe, teaching, but also studying Chinese, a subtle four-tone language requiring a musical ear, and exploring nearby cities. At the end of my term, the Foreign Guest Office of the college had arranged an exit trip: I was to travel from Beijing to Guangzhou along a route from North to South that included visits to Suchow, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Although I was somewhat anxious about my ability to communicate in Chinese, traveling proved no real difficulty. For in each city, whenever I had pulled out my Rough Guide to China, someone like this polite young man standing expectantly before me had approached and asked if he—it was always a “he”—could help, if he could “practice his English,” “if he could walk with me.” I soon discovered that “walking with me” meant that, like a tour guide, he would not only tell me about the wonders of his city but show them to me as well. Today, in downtown Shanghai, on a street crowded with people weaving around us as we stood talking, and innumerable bicycles competing for space with the truck and bus traffic, I replied gratefully, “Of course. I’ll be happy to walk with you,” answering his smile with my own. But this time I had a specific tour agenda in mind.
We introduced ourselves—his name was Wang–and showing him the citation to the restaurant in the Rough Guide and the map, “Can you tell me how to get there?” I asked speaking slowly to make sure he understood.
He took a moment to read and then shook his head slowly: “It’s too difficult for you. I think you should not try to go there.”
Feeling like an intrepid traveler who could easily overcome obstacles in my path, I persisted: “But then, can’t you go with me? I’m really eager to try the food. My book tells me it’s really special. We can talk all the way there.”
He hesitated, looking distressed, and after a moment’s pause, said quietly: “Very sorry. I can’t go there with you. It’s too far.”
As if I hadn’t heard this remark–certainly I didn’t want to hear it– I thought of a perk that might persuade him.
“If you take me there, I would like you to be my guest for dinner.”
“I can’t eat with you. It is not allowed for Chinese to fraternize with foreigners.”
I had come so far. Now Shanghai, with this exotic sounding restaurant. Was I to be thwarted by his polite but adamant refusal ? Determined to sway him, I put my desire above his caution and pleaded with him to reconsider: “I so much want to go there. I’ll never be here again. And who would know?” He looked even more distressed by my plea, but I continued wilfully to press him until finally, with the courtesy of a host, he acquiesced.
How many streetcars we took to get there I can’t recall, but a good hour or so later, we entered a featureless building in a rather shabby neighborhood and climbed the stairs to the red-curtained alcove entrance of the restaurant. We had to wait for two seats at a table—Chinese restaurants have large tables at which strangers as well as friends and family are seated —but finally we were led through the curtain into a spacious high-ceilinged room crowded with people noisily talking and furiously eating. As we were being seated at a round table in the center of the room, I took note of the group of rowdy, intoxicated soldiers in uniform at the table next to ours, and was grateful to be with Wang.
With Wang’s help I ordered dishes recommended in the Rough Guide and ate heartily, and with relish, more so than he, I thought ruefully. When the check came, I reached for my small black shoulder-bag, which I had hung on the back of my chair. But my hand encountered only the wooden chair-frame. There was no bag! Panicked, I cried aloud to him and to the room, “My bag! My bag’s missing, my passport, money—everything I need is in it.”
“Oh, no. Are you sure?” Wang, eyes wide, froze before me..
“Yes, I hung it on the chair and now it’s gone! We have to call the police.”
As I uttered those words, once more a look of distress, more extreme than when I had asked him to take me here, crossed his face. He leaned toward me and whispered, “Maybe the soldiers took it…. I think the soldiers took it.” By this time, the soldiers were gone.
“We have to call the police,” I repeated, my hysteria rising. “Please do that…there must be a phone here. You have to do that. Or get the restaurant owner to do that … we need to call the police.” Looking increasingly miserable, he shook his head from side to side and remained robotically seated. I burst into tears. That seemed to activate him; he rose from his seat, and promising to call the police, disappeared across the crowded room.
Half an hour or so passed; I sat there nervously, wondering why Wang had not yet returned, trying to imagine what I could do in this emergency. Was there an embassy? A consul who could represent me? Through the red curtain, a curious trio appeared: a wizened but dapper elderly gentleman in a cream-colored suit wearing a purple bow tie, accompanied by two strapping young men in dark suits. At last, the police, I thought, relieved. They made their way through the room to my table. One of the men brought the old man a chair, and once seated in directly in front of me, he began to converse in English:
“You came here with a friend to have dinner?”
“Yes, I did.”
“You are American?”
“Yes, I’m American.”
“What are you doing in China?”
“I came to teach in Beijing and now I’m on my way out of China.”
“You have lost your money?”
“Yes, I have lost my money. Someone stole my purse!”
“You have lost your papers?”
“Yes, I have lost my papers and can’t leave China without them. And I have a flight tomorrow.”
Given this rhythm of query and response, I had no doubt I was speaking to a very polite senior policeman, and so when the old man concluded, “I’m very sorry you have lost your things,” arose from his chair, and bowing to me, left with his two companions, I was puzzled. What had just happened? Who were they? A short time later, Wang reappeared. When I described this mysterious visit, he informed me that the gentleman was probably an elder whose function it was to pay due attention to foreigners upset by a local experience. An old tradition. Not the police.
“But the police should be here soon,” Wang assured me as my panic returned. “I called them from the kitchen.” An hour or so later, as he and I sat silently at the table waiting, several men walked through the curtain into the restaurant and, waving their arms lustily, ordered the staff to clear the restaurant, as I understood from seeing waiters scurrying around ushering people out. No ambiguity here. The police had arrived. Then it was my turn.
An office on the side of the room: I’m seated in front of a tall, slim, cold-eyed official who asks me questions similar to those of the elder, but in a voice with no emotional valence. Wang is seated next to me and translates between us. Some fifteen minutes into the interrogation, the door opens and another plain-clothed policeman walks in– dangling my bag in the air! A surge of relief—“That’s my bag!” I shout to the room, but no one responds.
The policeman gives my bag to my inquisitor, who looks through it, and then returns to his questioning: “Is this your bag?”
“Yes, that’s my bag.”
“Describe its contents.”
“My passport and my wallet….”
“How much money did you have?”
I try to imagine how much I had and come up with a number: “About 400 yuan and $100.”
The reptilian inquisitor looks at me coldly and intones sternly, “Think again.”
Panic. How much? How am I to remember? The pounding of my heart interferes with thinking clearly.
“Oh, yes, I forgot. I bought film this afternoon. 375 yuan and $100.”
“Think again,” he intones again, stonily. “That’s not right.”
Oh no. I try to remember. Oh, yes, … the little statuette ….. “I forgot something else I bought. I think maybe 350 yuan?”
That seems to satisfy him; he hands me my bag, and turning to Wang says something in Chinese I don’t understand. Wang translates: I have to go.
“But what happened?” I ask. “Where did they find my bag?”
“While we waited they searched the houses of all the restaurant workers; they found your bag in the apartment of one of the waiters. Now you must go.”
I rise, but he doesn’t.
“Wang, aren’t you coming too? I need your help to find my way back to the Teacher’s College,” I hear myself implore. Wang looks down at his lap, and says softly, “I have to remain here. Please go.”
Waves of guilt wash over me; in Beijing I had been told that crimes against foreigners are often punished by execution. What would happen to the waiter? And Wang, who helped me when he shouldn’t have! When my own desire put him in danger. What would be his punishment? What should I do?
“Please go,” he says again more insistently. There’s nothing to be done.
I made my way out of the now empty restaurant and onto the dark deserted street. A nearby streetlamp cast a long shadow on the sidewalk. I saw by my watch that it was close to midnight. I had no idea where I was or how to make my way back to my quarters at the Teachers College. I was considering whether to crouch in a doorway until morning when suddenly, as if in miraculous answer to my need, a taxicab pulled out of the darkness and stopped near the corner, and a young woman hidden in another doorway ran out to meet it. Without hesitating, I ran after her. The cab was full of other young people, apparently workers who had arranged for these nightly pickups. I pleaded with them to take me too, gesturing, repeating the few Chinese words I now remembered–“Warshe Laoshe” [I am a teacher]. And wondrously, they understood I was staying at the Teacher’s College and agreed to have me driven there! As if sinking into a warm and healing bath, I felt the relief of rescue.
But Wang. Whatever happened to Wang? In a country like China, in which social transgression was not a game, what were the real consequences of my single-minded pursuit of my desire. Selfish. I had been called that before, but never had it seemed such a just epithet as now. And never had I realized so clearly as now how in my search for exotic experience, my perception of the “other,” whoever he or she might be, was essentially instrumental. A sociopathology of tourism? I would have to check my moral compass more completely, tomorrow.