On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #4

I should probably ask.  But then he’ll smile.  He’ll talk to me in Mandarin.  I won’t understand and the moment will be ruined.  They’ll pose for me.  It won’t be candid.  And I imagine myself a photojournalist—at least on this trip.  I should ask.  But at least in China, at least in the Forbidden City,  I want to capture a moment.  I’ll just, kind of, put the camera off to the side, and just, kind of, snap.

In the Forbidden City copy_edit.jpg

The little boy points at me.  I’m caught.   I smile.  There’s no going back now.

The boy touches my camera.  I hand it to him.  He clicks and takes a picture of my shoes.  He laughs.  He points it at my face and clicks again.  The boy’s hair is so shiny, I stop myself from touching it.

The man mimes looking at the camera.  I take the camera from the boy and click the button to show them the pictures I’ve taken.  I show the Summer Palace and a funny picture of me on a bicycle navigating the streets of Beijing.  I show the man the photograph of him.  He touches the screen.  He grins, his teeth yellowed and crooked.  I  wonder if I should offer to pay him.  I am an exploitative piece of shit, I think.  I remain silent:  My tourist Mandarin escapes me.

He mimes writing and points to my backpack.   I give him my journal and a pen.  He writes in characters I don’t understand.  He nods.  I nod.  He smiles.  I smile.  He points to the journal.

I have no idea what the characters mean.   I wave and back away.  I will never take another candid, I say to myself.  He waves.  I wave.  And again.  We smile, we nod, we wave.  I am everything I hate, I think.

Later, at the hostel, I ask the host to translate.  It’s an address.  She shows me where it is on the map—not too far from the Forbidden City.

I wonder if he goes to the Forbidden City to think.  I wonder if he takes his son to see all the tremendous sites of his country.  I wonder if he feels the magic of the Forbidden City as I did.  Yet still, I also wonder if he noticed the red paint drips on the cobblestone the way I did.  I ache with regret that I didn’t engage in conversation.  All I have is the photo.

When I get home, I print the photograph and send it to him.  I write in simplified Mandarin, thank you.




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