May 8th—Blessed are those mornings that begin with custard. A sweet and warm egg tart wiggling like a womb of scrumptious calories. This is my breakfast and Hong Kong’s departure gift.
Hong Kong to Guilin by plane. I’m unhappy. When Muhammad Ali took his first flight he strapped a parachute to his back and wailed in the aisle awaiting vertical oblivion. With each turbulent bump, he yelled, “We’re going down!” My anxiety isn’t so public, but I empathize. My nails are gone by take-off. Left behind are anchoring filaments of skin, and they bleed. I imagine being mentioned in the last segment of a local news story at home. “Today, a Cathay Pacific flight crashed, killing 112 passengers. Among the dead were a mother and son from America. The son’s charred, mostly dismembered corpse was found alongside an un-deployed parachute pack.”
CHINA, Guilin, May 9th—Here is China. The mainland side. We’ve made a decision we will regret, but haven’t yet realized it.
Our hotel skirts Guilin. The front door stands twenty minutes from city center, and is across a bridge, over a river. When we prepared our itinerary, I requested we go somewhere rural. We had Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu. The compaction of humanity might be too much after a while. That we added Guilin, for this reason, is comical, because it is a city of 4.7 million people. If Guilin is rural, then Manhattan is abandoned. Yet Mom did well: the hotel is cottage-like, it has that familiar aspect. The beds are downy, and the food is decent. It’s outside of tourist season, so a European family seems to be the sole other guests. Our balcony looks out on a pair of karst mountains. The granite points are scalped of greenery. Wires from transmission towers thread the view. It is dawn, quiet. We are in an enclave, one that strikes me as built for tourists. Tour buses arrive during the day. Tourists wile away hours at hot-pot restaurants, bric-a-brac stores that sell steel pots, massage parlors, and tea houses. Our day hasn’t started. The clamor of vendors will soon begin. We hear rain clatter and have breakfast.
The previous evening we obtained from the hand of a front desk employee a binder of Guilin tour options. Neither of us is the tour type. Not even Mother, who is getting on in years, has been tempted into those Viking Tours, which cater to retirees and young couples who don’t read the entire brochure. China requires a different sense, however. We want to see the Li River. This is why we’ve come. A tour is about the only way for us to accomplish it.
The Li and its basin is a place of preternatural beauty. So says the advertisements. It’s a wide, winding waterway of some 52 miles, segments of which we can see by boat. Karst formations spangle the sides. One formation is depicted on the 20 Yuan note. We’re optimistic crowds will be sparser than normal: we’re here right after China’s major holidays and smack-dab at the apex of the rainy season. Our tour selection is the most basic: a $60 a person, all day boat affair that includes lunch, return transportation, and English guide. It’s from 7:30 to 19:00. “How many people on the tour?” I asked the front desk lady. “Perhaps twenty or thirty,” she responded.
So we are up. The weather is getting precocious. Heavy rain is forecasted, though when we start it’s but a minor drizzle. Our bus waits three blocks away in a public parking lot. We board and are the only ones. Mother and I sit in different rows at first, a comic miscalculation. Five minutes later we stop at another hotel. Six board. One, a Chinese woman with short hair, glasses, and an orange wind-breaker introduces herself as our guide. The bus continues, stopping at the Hilton, the Shangri-la, hostels. We are not yet aware of it, but the highest point our moods will achieve today has already passed.
The bus fits eighty-six and is half-full. I gaze out the window. Fog is down across buildings like a head-scraping rafter. I worry the same will be true of the Li, that we’ll be penned inside the boat and have to listen to the fog horn rip apart the river.
Forty minutes of traffic and we’ve wound our way through a quarter of Guilin. Mom read that avoiding roads here between 7 a.m – 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. – 9 p.m. is not just prudent but necessary. We accomplish a foot a minute. I take on the study of the Chinese characters on businesses, hoping to decipher patterns. It’s linguistic cryptology, a skill I have neither the observational fortitude nor intelligence for. I fold quickly.
Our guide announces that in one hour and fifteen minutes we will arrive at the dock.
Thirty minutes more, a few more stops, and the bus is full. Non-Chinese tourists board, Germans. We exchange head nods, connected by nothing but skin color and the same root words.
The guide—who is working both sides of her clientele’s language needs—stands at the front of the bus. Two wiper blades suited for William Wallace arc across the windshields behind her. First, she speaks English, making her announcements through the bus’s PA system. Her fluency is, to put it kindly, tentative. None of us understand her. Every sentence she repeats twice. Sounds possess a vague similarity to certain syllables, but we give up our focus after a minute. We guess she is announcing our schedule. Then she switches to Chinese. She maintains the same fast tempo and rhythm. In fact, I can tell where in her announcement she is based on her inflection of particular words. She utilized those exact inflections during her English speech. She’s done this so often that her speech is rote down to the phonetics. She goes on far longer in Chinese than she did in English. By the fifteen minute mark, I ask my Mom whether she knows if Chinese is a more verbose language. Total announcement time is forty-five minutes. What had began as a tour overview ends with her walking down the aisle holding a bag of perfume bottles, lofting one of them into the air, and spraying a sample onto the people in each row. A few hands go up, fists stuffed with cash. The guide scurries to them, and a bargain is reached.
We stop when the rain stops. Li River’s embarkation terminal measures a lap around. We are to enter and pass through security, but our guide gifts us twenty minutes to mill about the vendors outside. I swing around, gaze at profuse displays of bananas, mangos, apples, lychees, knick-knacks, clothes, porcelain figures, incense. If I display the slightest hitch in step in front of a tent, that tent’s vendor comes out and either try to guide me closer to their wares or thrusts an item they guess I’ll like underneath my nose.
Mega-buses park in an appurtenant lot at a rate of one every five minutes. Guides exit first, lofting an identifying flag on a skinny pole. Our guide has already introduced us to ours: a yellow banner with a panda. When twenty minutes are up we’re to gather around, and similar instructions have been given to all the other tour buses by all the other guides holding their own colored flags. The scene is very much like ones I’ve seen on New Zealand sheep farms: various dogs circling scattered sheep into clustered groups. This is just the inverse.
The guide asks the non-Chinese members to have our passports handy for security. This causes a row. With one exception, none of us have ours. “We weren’t informed of this,” we protest. Our guide says, “In China you must always bring passport. In China you must always bring passport.” The idea is preposterous. Board a boat, bring a passport. In the end, it’s a non-issue. While going through security, the officials only ask to see our tickets.
Our boat is the first one off the dock ramp. There are ten (boats, not ramps), five deep off the bank and arrayed parallel with the shore. Our boat has a flat hull. Lengthwise, it’s sixty feet end to end. I’m approximating, as I do not often carry measuring tape. Great square windows are on the side, there are two stories, although on top of the second story is a railed-in deck. There are two other decks on the second story: one partially covered, one not. Mother and I are some of the first to board. We are at Table 2, a six-person booth table that we scoot into. Once our companions arrive and the table is full, we take a look at each other and burst out laughing. We are all white. The sole white people on this boat, in fact. This proves to be a handy icebreaker. Ninety people board and the sound level has ratcheted up to a din. Engines start, the crew yells announcements and instructions. At 9:47 the boat kicks off. Rearing back, we pass five billboards on the river’s opposite bank: two for cars, one showing a river life scene, one that I can’t decipher.
At 10:02, announcements begin. Crew members are so identified by their identical uniforms. There are non-crew members, affiliation unknown. Crew and non-crew members gather around a prominent position in open view of everyone in the bottom cabin. One crew member speaks, but all have microphones with a little speaker attachment clipped to their belts. At first, Table White is attentive and considerate, behavior that no one else in the cabin seeks to emulate. Announcements are in Chinese, and I become distracted—nay, obsessed—with an older man with a basset hound face who is tinkering with a Chanel selfie stick.
Despite Table White’s initial attention, by 10:07 it’s gone. We yell over the announcements, which is what everyone is doing. Our table mates are European, which is to say, German. One couple is on holiday, the other, two students, are mates from home. One of them studies on exchange at Shanghai University. He says the cultural barrier between the Chinese students and himself is insurmountable, that about all the progress he’s made is in the form of courtesies.
10:10, announcements continue.
By now, rain speckles the windows. The fog is low enough to be licking the river banks. Who is announcing has changed. A man with epaulets and a captain’s hat started it off (who is driving the boat?). A stewardess stepped in after. Now, the announcer is a guy in a red vest. Audio feedback is atrocious. Table White plugs its ears until a technician fiddles with the speakers and makes a breakthrough. Red-vest Guy is given the thumbs up go-ahead, and he describes, in English, a few karst formations. Turned in our direction, he holds a binder that’s opened to a photo of the relevant formation. I hope the presentation is superfluous, that what hasn’t happened is word from the brig is fog is so bad no one will see a damn thing, so send Red-vest Guy to run through the slideshow as Plan B. Red-vest Guy switches to Chinese and flips the scrapbook to page one.
At Table White, we discuss acclimating to Chinese cuisine. I admit I’m dumplinged out. How this is possible, I do not know. New York City Dumplingfest is an annual rite. At Vanessa’s near Delancy, Josh, Antonio, and company order dumplings by the hundred. When I received word in 2016 that Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle & Dumping shuttered without explanation, I was despondent and prepared a mourning altar with incense and a carton of MSG. Now though, I crave greens. Give me, please, a single god damn raw leaf. Let me escape the fact that sodium is its own food group here. My tongue tingles, my body is retaining water, and I’m swelling like a balloon with limps clamped on a hose. (NB: Chinese consume 4.8g of sodium per day, the highest rate in the world.) We empathize with the Chinese tourists in our home countries who stream into restaurants into restaurants like “Emperor of China” or “The Golden Dragon.” Even the poorest resemblance of food from home is worth savoring. I recount a moment from an episode of “Crazy Delicious” with David Chang. Chang is an American restaurateur. His most famous establishments are Momofuku and Milk Bar. Both sensations. He is first generation American, parents from Korea, and discusses mainstreaming Korean cuisine. He is at once protective of his culinary heritage—stating a gut, objectively wrong, feeling that non-Koreans shouldn’t be allowed to like kimchi because they were never teased for stinking up their elementary school lunchroom with it—and eager to share it. He’s a connector who encourages people to expand their tastes, and does so himself. So, the episode: he visits China. He’s paired with an American expat, who is the perfect guide as her taste buds are American taste buds, as Chang’s are, yet they’ve accumulated to the Chinese textures and flavors that Americans consider unique and alien. She understands, is what I’m saying, Chang’s trepidation. Yet it’s taken her years to complete this acclimation herself. She organizes a banquet for Chang. They sit at a roundtable, red-clothed, a dozen dishes arrayed within chopstick distance on a lazy-Susan. Chinese waiters stand at a wall nearby. Cheng samples deer tendon, chews, chews, looks at the waitstaff, chews, looks defeated, “I don’t think I can finish this,” he says. His American host asks, “Do you want a napkin?” “Fuck,” says Cheng. He spits it out. “I’m so sorry, can you tell [the waitstaff] how sorry I am. I’m reminded what it’s like to…be a foreigner.” His struggle gave me license to have my own. There is no heroism in total immersion, yet there is admiration in the attempt.
We wrap up the food discussion. Red-vest Guy is still going. He’s into a new part of the binder, one he didn’t show us. Photos of Chinese families posing with karst formations behind them. The families look strange, like stickied in front of a green screen. It’s now that I see Red-vest Guy’s Canon equipment on the floor behind him. He holds up a white-order form.
10:21, the announcements stop.
10:23, the announcements start.
I announce to Table White that I’m going to the top deck. My head is vibrating like a beat-on gong. I’ve consumed a pot of tea on my own, and my bladder is pulsing.
Up two sets of stairs, I’m on the deck. A megaphone is bolted to the steel flagpole. Announcements that begin below, pipe louder here.
Fog and rain have compromised the view, but it remains beautiful. Karst peaks perforate the fog. They jut like opulent teeth, the Li flowing between. The rock maw, its furrowed water tongue. Fishing canoes pass at an oblique angle, the current at the bow being faster than the current at the stern. Docks are half afloat, half submerged. Poles poke from spots near the mud banks. Loose netting hangs between. Agitated water within the pens suggests fish are being raised. I do not feel that current in our boat. We are about as steady as a level on this old iron queen. Its engines are durable. When my feet are planted, I can feel them. In the head, which is near the engine room, the mechanical lumbering is about all I can hear.
11:02, announcements continue.
11:18, announcements end.
The rain presses pause. People hop to take advantage of the reprieve, but I sense also that we approach a famous formation. Selfie sticks thrust around me like porcupine barbs, and I utilize my height to maintain a clear view. There’s nothing to see, but I hear the repeating clicks of shutters.
Both German boys and I become boat celebrities. One family monopolizes the boys to the exclusion of everyone else. They get them to partake in a ten-minute photoshoot that has the family members moving on them by generation. Elders go first, children last. The females of the group, the young ones with ringless fingers and harlequin clothing coo on the boys, hanging onto them and are reluctant to let go. I stand by the stairs, bemused, snapping my own photos. Curious at the curiosity. A cultural stereotype myself: snapping photos of Chinese snapping photos of things not normally snapped. While I’m doing so, a young girl with a beautiful, subdued photogenic quality holds my hand and pulls it. It startles me, and I ask if she’s grabbing me for a photo. She smiles, turns her head aslant, and says nothing. She takes me to the railing, and her friend snaps a few photos. The girl frowns at the lighting in them so threads her arm through mine and pulls me to the balcony, which is bequeathed with suffusive light. Here, the friend takes two more. The girl was blinking in the first one, so she deletes it, the second pleases her, she holds it up for me, then puts it into an app where she doctors her appearance: rounds her eyes, narrows her forehead, lightens the glint of her skin. Her smile is her thank you. She continues to smile at me for the duration of the journey whenever we are in each other’s sightline.
11:27, announcements begin.
Announcements continue through lunch. While we munch on our vacuum sealed, steam-box warmed entrees of white fish with rice and veggies, a non-uniformed lady unzips a massive suitcase and lifts a sweeping, colorful dress over her head and onto her body. The veneer resembles faux-silk. Certainly, this is no vogue piece, but she begins to strut around like it is one, converting the space between the tables to a catwalk, modeling the dress with sideways glances and occasional whirs. It works. The production gets a few buyers. One, the mother of the photogenic girl. I notice too, they’re fit for a National Geographic expedition: each family member has a camera, professional tripods, collectively they have a drone.
We’ve gone as far down the river as we’re going to go. Our docking spot is next to a stone town. There’s a single exit point, and its underneath a covered walkway. Vendors occupy each meter. In the air is enterprise. Deals. Twofers. None of the merchandise is unique. What’s skipped at the beginning is seen twice or three times more by the end. At that end, the curb, the covered awning ends, and the people on our boat are no longer schedule bound to maintain formation. We split, off to lodgings or buses that promise a return to Guilin. The girl smiles a final time and waves goodbye.
Mom and I walk two miles to meet our bus. The directions our guide has given us, repeated twice, as usual, does not quite compute with the town’s actual layout. “Turn right at the third street, turn right at the third street,” results in a right turn into a dead-end park. Rain is a sheet. We turn down a street that’s more populated, it just feels like a thoroughfare. One street here is so much like another that in recalling them I cannot remember their specifics. But I know that in describing generalities I describe them all. This street has shops, none of which are behind pull or push glass doors. They’re garage-like entryways. At the front stand an employee or two, often attached to headsets and mega speakers with the base dials seemingly twisted around to twice the maximum. The employees speak, their exuberant pitches, which are not in English, never fail to make us smile politely, but always fail to entice us in. We do stop for a demonstration: a shirtless man with baggy pants held to his narrow torso with a rope wields a great steel hammer with a wood handle. This he lifts above his head and slams it down onto a rope of taffy laid across a stump. An assistant rotates the taffy as the hammer rises again. I think it is taffy. It has the sticky and ropy quality of taffy, but this is China, where uncanny resemblances bring culinary surprises.
It is half five when we arrive at the correct hotel. The bus is out front. We do a sprint to cover as rain falls harder and slight inclines carry an inch of water. No part of us is not wet. “We can peace out, we can peace out,” our guide says as she waves us onto the bus.
The announcements continue. I don’t bother looking up. The German couple is near us. I detect the rummy chagrin of wet unhappiness. We all dream of the palliative effects of hot shower and food. It’s forthcoming though delayed as we track the route from before. Charting in reverse, those picked up last dropped off first, until it is my mom and I are who are left. Abandoned in a bus with white plumed windows, back to separate rows, pep-talking ourselves to the next step, which is how fine that hot blast of water will be, hot steam plugging up the whole bathroom works.
“I’m never taking another Chinese tour again,” my mom says. One can agree.