A SOJOURN IN BEIJING
Our Tour Guide/Minister of Propaganda
Okay, okay, I’ll fess up: I fired the first volley in the little verbal skirmish — I mean, frank political discussion — with Mr. Yu.
For two days, he’d been a top-notch taskmaster, guiding our little group through the vicissitudes of being On the Road in China.
And he had a sense of humor: He introduced himself as “Yu Pao Cai,” or Pickled Yu.
“He’s very knowledgeable,” my wife said fawningly. “He knows all about medicine and feng shui.”
Pickled Yu did deliver the goods: right off, he offered up the real dirt on Chinese tourism. He advised us, for example, to first conduct a test boil of our hotel hot water pots before using them for drinking — because some classless guests have been known to clean their dirty underwear in those same vessels.
An Old Chinese wife’s tale? I didn’t care. I took Mr. Yu at his word.
One morning, as we toured the 300-year-old Phoenix Village in Hunan Province, Mr. Yu advised not to buy anything for over $15, because most of the offerings were fakes.
He later led us to an “official” store run by the Chinese government, where, he insisted, we could be sure the merchandise was genuine.
“How do you know we trust the Chinese government any more than those merchants?” I asked.
Pickled Wu raised his eyebrows at my weak attempt at humor.
“Let’s not get started,” he said, pointedly. “I can criticize the American government, too.”
Bring it on, I said, smiling.
He then launched into a riff about the differences between democracy and China’s former of government. “In China,” he said, “we fight for honor. And for that reason, we will fight to the death.”
Americans, on the other hand, fight not for honor, but for conquest.
And here was the kicker:
“That’s why they surrender so often,” he said.
I think he was mistaking us for the French.
Sure, we left Vietnam under what Nixon called “an honorable peace,” I told him. But we Americans do not surrender.
“If our bus breaks down,” Mr. Yu continued. “the Chinese passengers will help the driver fix what’s wrong. But the Americans will walk away. It’s not their problem. They’re in it for themselves.”
“That dude,” I whispered to my wife: “is a Chinese government official.”
I’d run into Yu’s ilk before.
A few years ago, when I worked as a journalist in Beijing, while doing a story on some 5,000-year-old Chinese cultural artifact, one government official approached me condescendingly. “It must be nice to live in a country with only 200 years of history,” he sniffed.
A year before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, I was chatting up a few Chinese teenagers at a coffee house. I told them I was excited about Beijing being able to grab the world stage.
“It’ll be great for the Chinese people,” I said. “Too bad the Chinese government has to benefit as well.”
The moment they left, a middle-aged man appeared at my table.
He introduced himself as Mr. Chen, a Chinese government official, and he’d heard what I’d said to the teenagers.
The knife was brandished quickly.
“Too bad America is fighting two wars at the same time, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “Perhaps you’re doing something wrong.”
I told him straight: I will criticize my own country when warranted. Americans aren’t always the “do-gooders” George W. Bush talked about. Forget about spreading democracy; much of our foreign policy is based on acquiring the natural resources we need to keep our society functioning.
That’s the way it’s been for a long time.
But China better beware, I said: They are exhausting their own resources at such a rate that they’re now forced to wager these grand “investment” programs in poor parts of the world, such as in Sudan and Central America, as a way to get the oil and precious minerals they can no longer provide for themselves.
Pretty soon, China will find itself in some nasty civil war.
It could have its own Iraq.
I didn’t want my discussion with Pickled Yu to go down that road, so I threw him an olive branch.
No surrender, mind you. Let’s just call it “an honorable peace.”
Listen, I told him, young men fighting wars are all a band of brothers, every last one of them, no matter what flag they fight under. They will die to protect one another.
When we all hopped back on the bus, I’ll admit I was a bit peeved at Pickled Yu. Later, like all Chinese tour guides, he came down the aisle trying to sell bags of snacks to supplement his meager salary.
“Too expensive!” I said, as the Chinese passengers laughed.
He turned to me: “You’re a bad egg,” he said.
That’s when my wife jumped to his defense. There are three reasons why Chinese men will resort to violence, she said: They’ll seek revenge if you a) kill their father; b) steal their wife, or c) get in their way while they’re trying to do business.
Her point: Back off, dude.
Later, Mr. Yu wandered back to our section of the bus and said he wanted to continue our earlier conversation.
What did I think of the Chinese government? he wanted to know.
Did he want, like, the truth?
They were heavy-handed, I said, with a tendency toward repression.
(How do you say “jack-booted thugs” in Mandarin?)
Then Mr. Wu told a story: He acknowledged that he was a Chinese government official, but not a member of the Communist party.
He grew up as a poor minority Chinese in Hunan Province, but his parents insisted their children get an education. To make that happen, they sold all the property they owned — which amounted to a single ox.
Mr. Yu recalled coming home from school to see his father pulling the plow in place of the missing beast of burden, while his mother steered.
He still gets emotional at that image.
When he graduated and got a job, he repaid his parents by taking them to Beijing for a weeklong vacation.
He said it was the best thing he ever did in his life.
When his parents returned to their rural village, they no longer stooped like common laborers. They stood erect. Pride had done that. Their son was so well off he could take them to the capital!
“China is a poor country,” he said. “We have to thank the government for bringing us into the modern era.”
As we talked, a dozen middle-class Chinese passengers around us listened intently. Perhaps they’d never heard such a frank exchange of views, including opinions from someone who wasn’t a defender of the Communist party.
But my wife has heard this kind of talk before from me. As she translated, I sensed she was taking sides.
And her allegiance was not to me.
But I don’t think we were really drawing lines in the red-clay countryside. I liked Pickled Yu and listened to what he had to say.
I asked if he’d ever been to the U.S., and he admitted he had not.
If you can, maybe you should visit one day, I said. Many of my own views about China have been nuanced by my travels here.
In the end, the Pickle Man and I think a lot alike.
I asked him a question: you’ve just survived an epic flood and are standing by a rain-choked river to see three people float helplessly past.
One was Korean, one Japanese and the other American.
If he could only save one, I asked, which one would you choose?
He thought for a moment.
“None of them,” he said. “I’ll tell them all to learn to swim.”
I told him I liked his thinking.
It was an honorable peace, indeed.