During our 11 days in 1981 in mainland China, people stared at
our bicycles and welcomed us warmly at hotels, and our hosts, the
All China Youth Federation, gave us the red-carpet treatment.
However, there were a few incidents in which sudden anger stopped
me up short. I saw the real, everyday Chinese stores and eating
places the day I wandered alone in downtown Canton.
Here’s how this foreigner happened to be alone.
A young woman in our group was riding too close behind me and
when her front wheel hit my rear wheel we both went down. My
helmet saved me from a head injury, but my back was muddy, my
right ankle hurt and my left leg was muddy and bleeding from
abrasions below my bike shorts to my ankle.
Adhesive Band-Aids wouldn’t stick in the rain, so I
pedaled on; we were only three miles from the hotel where we
would spend the night. I was 67 years old. The trip leader said I
must be examined the next morning to keep the insurance valid in
case some additional problem might surface later.
Two interpreters walked with me to the hospital and, after the
exam, a written report in Chinese, three envelopes of pills and
paying the 45-cent bill for the doctor, hospital and medicine,
the interpreters approved my request to wander around downtown.
The other cyclists had gone shopping at a "friendship
store." It was a unique request, and the interpreters
shouldn’t have allowed it!
Carrying a saddlebag with a tag identifying me and giving the
address of our hotel, I wandered through sidewalks and streets
filled with people, bicycles, chickens, a few pigs and an
occasional stock truck packed with workers, standing up, on their
way to jobs in factories.
I had both the crisp, clean tourist money and the crumpled,
worn out "people’s" money.
In a drug store, a crowd of people gathered to stare at me and
to interpret my pantomime and gibberish to the man across the
counter. I wrote "acupuncture," and an older woman read
the letters out loud but couldn’t make out the word. I
sketched a person’s arm with a needle in it, and a young man
from the crowd called out "acupuncture needle" in
Chinese. I bought 12 for almost nothing.
People selling sugar cane stalks on the sidewalk laughed with
me, and a fellow chewed a stalk and spit to show me how to
swallow the sweet and let the fiber drop to the ground out of one
side of my mouth. Chickens came running for the part that
I photographed a man squatting on the sidewalk selling dried,
smoked fish about 8 inches long and a father and son selling
bundles of twigs and scraps of wood for kindling. An elderly man
repaired worn-out shoe heels; he was one of the few elderly
people I saw in the 11 days. I asked "Picture?" of a
woman mending umbrellas. Laughing, she timidly said
"no." A dozen bystanders urged me to take it anyway,
and I did.
I saw an open meat market with butcher blocks completely
covered with flies, but when a woman saw my camera she angrily
scolded me and shooed the flies away. I photographed the empty
blocks and made a quick getaway.
Most people were excited and happy to see foreigners, but an
artisan at work had hung some unwrapped, fresh raw meat with bone
on a nail driven into the window frame. She was furious when she
saw the camera, so I apologized and departed without the picture.
What a memorable day I spent alone in Canton!