No Tour Guides Necessary This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

     The summer before my twelfth birthday, my mother had decided that it was time I experienced her homeland firsthand. I had been to China when I was three but could only remember splashes of colors and noise, no particular incident that could have made an imprint on my mind. So after a hellish 17-hour flight full of relentless turbulence, I stood at the terminal, looking down on a mass of black heads quite different from the multicolored ones back at the Newark airport.

While on the plane, when I wasn’t clutching the arm rests, I had fashioned an image of the China that would greet me when I stepped onto its soil: a pulsing, exotic world of feasting on duck and parties where I would get to stay up superbly late.

That image was dashed the minute I entered my grandparents’ apartment.

“We can only have duck on your last night,” my grandma said firmly, adding that its price had shot up and could only be eaten on special occasions, occasions that went beyond a simple, “I’m hungry.” And, as I later found out, parties were a rare occasion, as going out to restaurants was more and more common since, in all honesty, who really wants to invite 50 people over and then have to clean up?

Thus, my first nights in China consisted of alternating between watching Chinese cartoons with their high-pitched voices and completing extra math assignments that my mother insisted I work on. My grandfather must have noticed when one afternoon, I ferociously snapped the textbook shut and flung it across the room; it was sweltering hot and I didn’t want to do any more addition problems.

“It seems that you haven’t seen China’s landmarks yet. Why don’t we pay some a visit?” I grumpily agreed and the next day, we were off, beginning with the Great Wall.

Even before we got there, I saw the weaving line begin, carving a serpentine path through the mountains, and excitedly clamored to purchase a camel to ride throughout the wall.

“No camel,” Grandpa grunted in disgust, “Does a camel truly know how it feels to have the stones of history beneath its feet? No, to climb the Great Wall, a human must disregard any influence a beast has and learn to rely on himself.” So I stumbled on the paved paths, taking pictures left and right, while in the background, Grandpa balefully noted how much I acted like a tourist.

Over the next few days, Grandpa and I explored the Forbidden City, where in the past only the emperor and his family were deemed holy enough to set foot inside. Now, it seemed slightly sacrilegious to see all the tourists milling around, never acknowledging that in technical terms, I myself was a tourist. When the midday sun set in, Grandpa hustled me to a sidewalk, repeating that if I dared leave the little bench while he was at the bathroom, I wouldn’t know the exquisite taste of duck, even on my last day.

I sat obediently on the bench until a glimmer caught my attention. I dangled

irresolutely between all those sparkling stones and Grandpa’s dire words: pretty jewels or duck? So darkly tanned that I could barely determine his age, a man was squatting over a straw basket containing gems that, in his words, were collected from around the world. Finally, I swerved in favor of the gems; if I saw Grandpa coming, I would only have to scamper those few steps back to the bench and plaster an innocent expression on my face.

Pushing through the crowd surrounding the basket, I dipped my hand in, in awe on how the sun burst into tiny sparks and flashes on those stones, thinking how one looked just like a frozen form of rippling pool water. The vendor inched closer to me while still holding his flimsy parasol, grinned coarsely and mumbled, “Little girl, won’t you buy one of my stones?” I only had a few coins and shrugged an apology. He bobbed his head up and down, reached into the basket, pulled out the one I wanted most, and pressed it into my palm. I shook my head, trying to convey that I had no money to give to a poor man like him, but he shook his head. I didn’t want to leave nothing so I dropped the coins into a smaller basket near his feet.

Before I could understand what had really happened, Grandpa’s gnarled fingers landed on my shoulder and pulled me back.

“What did I say about leaving the bench? No duck for you!”

“But, Grandpa, this nice man here-”

“Hmmph! Cheap tourist trinkets, they’re not worth anything!”

“But, Grandpa, he gave me this one for free!”

“Why should I let you keep that, just so it could collect dust over the next few days when you tire of it?”

“I won’t, I promise! And I won’t tell Grandma that you smiled in the family portrait without your fake teeth on.”

“Why, you little ... fine. But let me give him what he deserves.” I turned my back, occupied with the treasure and barely detecting the cries of gratitude the vendor made when Grandpa grudgingly handed over a bit more money than was necessary.

After much nagging, I eventually convinced him to take me to the nearest mall and spend the day there. Grandpa, who disapproved of mass consumerism, scowled as I ran from counter to counter, exclaiming at all the stuffed toys and dolls. One memorable incident occurred just outside a perfume and make-up store: a salesperson accosted Grandpa and told him that he should purchase some lovely fragrance for the lucky lady. Ignoring his angry sputtering that he was indeed happily married, she tugged him into the store, where despite his protests, she persisted in showing him almost every bottle in the store.

On my last day, when Grandpa generously managed to forget his promise that no duck would be served, I sat staring at the light stone, rubbing it in my hand and remembering how happy I had been these past few weeks. Recollecting the image that I had so naively set up, my mind flicked past the landmarks and settled on the people I had met during my visit. The street vendor, the salesperson, even Grandpa, all had made China into a land of more than just nice architecture and wonderful material goods. They made this country a place worth remembering, a place that spoke of history and rich heritage and ancient palaces, a place worth coming back to.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 1 comment. Post your own now!

sunshine said...
Jul. 2, 2011 at 11:12 pm
it needed more work.
Site Feedback