Language / Travel: China

Seeing Red

Through minimal effort on my part, I found myself on the Great Wall with a friend last week. The sheer physical stamina required to hike the steep inclines and slopes didn’t exactly invite restful contemplation, but I managed to be still for a few moments, feel the wind and absorb the history beneath my feet. However, it was when I added my own contribution to this history that I truly felt the magnitude of the moment.

Not only that, but I felt that now, finally, my family past and present was there with me and had been with me here in China all along. I had started out the climb in a grumpy mood, like it was something I was obliged to do but had no personal interest in. Although we had been warned that Chinese tourists get very excited to take pictures with foreigners on the Wall, I still became irritated right away with the first few who tried to sneak snapshots with us. As the hours passed though, their enthusiasm grew on me and I started to enjoy becoming a part of many a Chinese family album. On the Wall, it felt natural to us to become part of their family history. It was no longer irritating. A sure sign of this was the fact that we also asked to take pictures of them with us on our cameras. There they were, doing the equivalent of the Hajj for Muslims or a pilgrimage to Kullibi for Ethiopians. And we, well we were in China of all places, on the GW of all places. So if there was ever a good time to gorge on the photo-ops, this was it. Never have I ever and never will I ever be so at peace amongst a sea of Chinese tour groups. Case in point: the flight back to Wenzhou.

A group of travellers, all of whom were clearly flying for the second time ever in their lives, dominated every step of the trip – boarding, flight, landing – by their loud, unabashed excitement. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone get so excited to take a picture of themselves boarding a plane, or on the tarmac with the plane in the background, or getting up so many times to catch a view out the window. It was endearing. My rough guess was that this was a group of labourers returning from some sort of company-sponsored trip to Beijing. I felt excited for them. I sat in the same row as two members of this group for the 2 hour flight and, aside from a brief greeting, had nothing to say to them and vice versa. Sure, there was the usual staring but I was pleasantly surprised by how fleeting it was. Once we landed in Wenzhou and were standing in the aisles and rows to exit the plane, the cameras came out again – including that of my aisle-mates. He took a few shots of his buddy, then…well, you know the rest of the story. Play by play, it was a recap of the zoo incident, except this time I added a few paragraphs worth of cussing out, and my pawing at the camera caused it to slam into the back of the head of an innocent passenger – to whom I apologized, of course. He, and other passengers who were not part of the tour group were on my side and added to the scolding. It helped, but sharing a shuttle bus ride to the terminal packed with the same tour group chattering on about the incident and clearly referring to me the whole time, didn’t.

As enraged as I was I couldn’t bring myself regret my time at the Wall and the pleasant memories we created with the Chinese tourists – many of them part of a group like the one on the plane. Then, the Universe or whoever it was sent me a little joke, told me not to take myself too seriously. I was waiting for my friend in the busy airport restroom when I noticed that one of the women washing her hands at the taps had accidentally pulled up her skirt with her underwear, so that her whole butt – encased in large red silk panties – was visible. Her skirt had a chiffon-like fabric that fell over it, and that part had not been pulled up with her undies, so that was probably why she didn’t sense that her behind was catching a breeze. At any other time, anywhere else, I wouldn’t have hesitated to rescue the woman from the scalding humiliation of walking out into Baggage Claim with her ass on display. (I once stopped a mother of two on the street to tell her that her shirt was on inside out.) But then I noticed that this lady was one of them. A member of that tour group. I knew this because there was a cap hooked to her purse. That was the same cap everyone in the group was wearing or holding. I hadn’t even noticed her on the plane but I felt that she should pay for her friend’s idiocy on the plane. It wasn’t fair, but when was that ever a pre-condition for revenge?

She finished washing her hands and flicked off the water, happy as can be to be back home in Wenzhou. She was ready to walk out. I couldn’t do it. I tapped her on the shoulder and, using good old sign language, told her that her underwear was showing. She couldn’t have been more grateful, amused, embarrassed all at once. After she fixed it up I turned her around like a girlfriend would, to double check that all was in order, gave her a thumbs up, and waved her off, myself laughing by then. We were just two women having a good, wordless, laugh over something we both understood. Disaster averted. I’m sure that woman will have heard about the onboard camera incident by now, if she hadn’t done so already by the time she squatted for the fateful pee. Either way, she was probably too embarrassed to mention exactly how she got to know me in the restroom and discovered that I’m not always a temperamental bitch. She might make up a different story to save her own ass (ha ha, pun intended). Or she might say nothing at all but keep a private knowledge that we’re all the same inside and let that inform how she reacts to a foreigner the next time around. Or maybe she was one of the okay ones all along and didn’t need the lesson as much as I did. One thing I know we would agree on is that we both had good luck that day. A little cultural tidbit I’ve learned is that the Chinese consider it to bring good luck for people to wear red underwear for the whole year when the animal for that year is the same as their Chinese zodiac animal. So if, for example, you were born in the year of the dragon you should wear red underwear all of 2012, since it is the year of the dragon. I suspect that for the woman, the stroke of luck that day was that I was there to save her from embarassment. For me, the stroke of luck was that she was there to save me from bitterness.

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