Three days off from work and two of them have been successfully ruined by outings that turned out to be nightmares. When will I learn?
Day one was all right. It was a trip to Nanxi River. After asking around and haggling (by which I mean that I stepped aside and waited while the more linguistically-inclined among us did the talking), we finally made our way to the scenic area where we had to contend with the usual starers and picture-takers as we tried to enjoy the scenery as best we could. It was all right, nothing spectacular. This is a pattern I’ve come to notice. So-called “scenic areas” turning out to be nothing to write home about (rather, nothing to blog about – hence the silent picture show about Taimu Mountain). We came away exhausted from the endless stairs (that’s another thing, every place of recreation is infested with stairs), mildly refreshed from the mountain air and definitely cranky from the above-mentioned ignorant behaviour of locals. I am starting to sound like a broken record, but I need to reiterate the sheer relentlessness of the stopping, staring, pointing, giggling, saying God-knows-what to one another in Chinese, and parroting of meaningless “Hallo! Hallo!”. We capped off the day at our favourite Indian restaurant, to surround ourselves with diversity just as much as to remind ourselves that there’s a whole world out there in which such basic things as rice, meat, vegetables and even bread can be delicious and interesting. On the flipside, the inane chatter from the foreigners who sat at the table next to us (one of whom we’d socialized with through mutual friends) about the state of their bathrooms and what they had to do to make them usable and how they sometimes go to hotels to have baths made us wonder, perhaps a little too loudly, “Oh my God, is that what we really sound like?”
Day two…well, Providence sort of tried to block us from experiencing day two by way of making it difficult for us to find directions on how to get to our destination – the Wenzhou Zoo – by public bus. Taxis were also charging double fare because it was unlikely that they’d be able to pick up passengers on the way back (another tidbit courtesy of the more linguistically-inclined among us). Despite these warnings from Lady Fate, we got there soon enough. In this life we’re destined to walk into whatever we’re destined to walk into, I guess.
Within minutes of entering the gates I spotted a man taking a picture of us and was forced to engage in the behaviour which I’ve told myself time and time again that I ought to rise above – I gave him the finger. The nice, elegant middle one, even longer now thanks to my overgrown fingernails. I’ve flipped the finger at our “paparazzi” many times before, most memorably in Shanghai. The maddening thing is that it seems to have no effect. Their faces remain as expressionless as before they aimed their phone or camera precisely in our direction. This time, however, the man looked taken aback for a split second. Maybe I embarrassed him in front of his wife and kid, who knows?
Then he raised his phone again to take another shot.
So I raised my finger again and we walked away towards one cage to admire a lone, very bored, vulture standing beside a chunk of fly-infested meat. Thus the hours went. At each enclosure that we stopped at, every single person would lose interest in whatever poor creature had the misfortune of landing in this terribly maintained zoo to stare at us instead.
Never knew I was more fascinating than a Great Hornbill or Bengal Tiger.
The picture taking also continued just as brazenly as with the first guy. It followed one of two patterns.
1) the person or persons would see us and immediately raise the camera and snap a shot – without breaking stride and sometimes in the flow of motion from taking a picture of, say, an ostrich – sideways or right in our faces.
2) the person or persons would be enjoying the zoo as a normal person would – strolling, looking, snapping some shots – then they would spot us, try to be cool about it, edge over to their mates, exchange some words, then voila!, decide to take a picture right in front of us so that we would land in the frame.
The antenna that we have developed for when both these scenarios are about to occur is uncanny, Bond-like.
On an average day – on a good day – this might happen once or twice. But that day it was every five minutes and that’s being generous. Needless to say, we all got a little frayed after the first hour.
It was at the time of the ostriches that I started to come undone, the moment yet another man – within a few feet of us – raised his camera. I pointed directly at him and yelled: “Stop it!” Well, it sounded more like “Stooooop Iiiiiiiiit!” escalating in volume. There are times when you feel like your voice is coming out of your entire body, not just your throat. That was one. Immediately, he said something along the lines of “I was taking a picture of something behind you.” No linguistic-inclination needed to understand that. So much so that I yelled “No!” about three times before he finished voicing his moron’s excuse. That was the end of that. We sat there seething for a few minutes and moved off. To the hippopotamus pit, I think.
Maybe we should have left after that. But maybe we had a right to enjoy the zoo just as much as the next person. So we stayed, determined to find the lions and tigers and bears in this maze of stairs and pathways. We found all three. But there was a growing, softly spoken understanding between us that it really was time to leave before somebody snapped.
I saw them across the pond, him walking a little bit behind his kid and a little bit ahead of his wife, she with the camera. I know the type. I saw him turn and say something to her. I know that look. I know that turn. I know that line. She was taking pictures of the fish in the pond when she heard him. She looked to where he gestured with his chin. She had been lowering her camera after the fish but decided to keep it halfway up. They rounded the pond towards us. We rounded the pond towards them, intending for the stairs and the gates beyond. The kid passed, blissfully unaware. The man passed, staring. She neared…then raised her camera, point blank.
What was that thing I said about walking into whatever you’re destined to walk into?
In the next hot, violent seconds I took three long steps, palmed the entire camera, and snatched it away from her face. I stood glaring at her, my face inches from hers, mute with the fury of all that I wanted to say but couldn’t. My friends rounded on her and stood backup. I don’t think she knew what hit her right way (so I guess I should have clocked her in the jaw too while I had the chance), but she recovered fast enough to mumble the same story: I was taking a picture of something else.
Really? You waited until we were directly in front of you and you raised your camera directly in our faces to take a picture of something else? What exactly? Do tell! PRAY TELL! I shoved the camera back at her chest and let it go. She caught it. We walked off. Don’t ask me where the husband was during all this.
If I had happened, magically, to be in my apartment in that same moment, I would have started to pack my bags and been at the airport within hours. Such was the filthy aftertaste of the encounter. Right before I marched up to that woman, I was full of rage and certain that I would feel better afterwards. But I came away feeling angrier, more frustrated and trying with every ounce of my willpower to keep the stinging tears from falling until we had cleared the gates. Not that there was any relief beyond, either. We boarded a nearly full city bus and took our seats. The wait was long until the driver came, and in that wait I saw a man sitting at the far end of the bus snap a photo with his phone. I felt nothing. Not angry. Not amused. Simply numb. Short of actually hitting somebody, I had crossed the line and done something which I’d always threatened to do and which I’d always been sure would make me feel better. It didn’t. It changed nothing.
I’ve mentioned before, by way of analogy, how being in this city made us foreigners feel like we were some sort of exotic creature on display. The trip to the zoo brought this into sharper focus than I ever wished. As I sat in the bus discreetly using and reusing the same wad of tissue and saw that man holding his camera at the telltale angle, I felt captive. For the first time in my life, I identified more with the resignation on the faces of animals behind the glass sheets and iron bars of a zoo than with the curiosity of the people – supposedly my fellow humans – on the other side of it.
I made all kinds of vows to myself. I will never leave the apartment unless it’s to go to work or buy groceries. I will never eat Chinese food again. They can take their Great Wall and Terracotta Soldiers and shove it, I’m getting on a flight exactly the morning after I complete my contract. Fuck that, I’m getting on a flight now.
Then, a little girl about four years old got on the bus. Her mother followed close behind. The girl was dressed in black tights and a black turtleneck and her hair was cut in a bob. She was eating a colourful lollipop big as her face. Without waiting for her mother, who was dropping coins into the box beside the driver’s seat, she wandered down the aisle in a straight line towards me. But she wasn’t interested in me or in the other passengers. She glanced over all of us with an equal eye, her attention solely focused on her quest to find an empty seat. Finding one in the row in front of me, she patted it with her hand and called out something to her mother about them sitting there. Mom came along, pleasant but neutral, took the seat and put her daughter on her lap. And that was that. A cool breeze of normalcy.
Fine, I said, I’m done with going on outings as far as this cursed city is concerned, but I won’t deny myself the enlightenment of seeing places that travellers come from far and wide to see – the Wall, the Soldiers. I will see those places. I will brave the ignorance that I’m sure will meet me there too, because those places hark back to a time when China and the Chinese were something grand, worthy, a people aware and part of the world that they inhabited. That, I want to be witness to. Just like I was witness to the possibility of a similar future in that little girl who was just looking to find a place to rest.
In the meantime, somebody better warn these folks that not all wild animals are safely kept in a locked cage, and to heed the good Doctor’s warning: “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to…”
Sometimes it makes me wonder.