In Guangzhou, a Swedish man squeezes himself into a taxi with myself, Mike the Greek and Blake the Aussie. While leaning into his knees to settle the spinning in his head, the man tells us that Yangshuo, only a six hour bus ride from Guangzhou, is the most beautiful place on earth.
We all groan.
“Great,” Blake says as he exits the taxi, his glasses fogging up from the humidity. “I guess we have to go there now.”
I must be the most talkative foreigner in Yangshuo. My mouth runs in the ecstasy of being able to talk to locals who, two years ago, I could not have asked the time of day from. It turns out, being a barely-literate foreigner is the best way to cop deals. The woman making fruit shakes who thinks grapes in English are “purples” is impressed enough to comp me a mango shake. After hearing me order in mandarin, the hostel manager requires no service charge for the train ticket to Guilin. The female foot masseuse, after I practice Chinese on her for a good hour, gives me a bonus (back massage of course).
Yet, as I learned in Guangzhou, little good can come from speaking Chinese in front of other foreigners. I wander for two hours around West Street, the main tourist drag, dizzying about, until a shirtless French blonde man, Lucky Stroobandt, glides into my arm from the corner of a convenience store and asks if I can lend him my compass.
“Rang yi rang” I tell an old hawker flashing a campy Yangshuo map in my face.
“You can speak some Chinese?” Lucky says through his afternoon stubble.
So Lucky sticks with me for the next eight hours, giving me cigarettes in exchange for me ordering food and alcohol in mandarin—I pretend to smoke, he’s for real. I feel so stuck in Seattle politeness that I let him follow me like a lost calf until 4am and the last rooftop bar, “Mojo,” gets shut down by a policeman with a bushy mustache. The fuzz approaches Lucky and I, asks where we’re from, I respond in Chinese, and the cop smiles and leaves. The lights go back on.
Lucky: “Well, I feel un-intimidated.”
Lucky and I are joined by Mike and Blake, who we find at another rooftop bar, along with two Chinese travelers from Guangzhou, Rachel and her sister Xiao Ming, who also board at my hostel. We all eat beer fish with two other strangers (new friends [新朋友] we call them).
“Why you travel here?” Xiao Ming asks. She doesn’t bother to explain why she has traveled here.
Mike shrugs. “To hang out.”
“To study,” I say.
“I have less power here than in other Asian countries,” Lucky says. “Few people care. Few care I speak English. Few care I am from France. No special attention. Just feel—like I born naked, like everyone else.”
“Yeah,” Blake nods, as if he had said it himself. “We come for that too.”
Blake the squat Aussie, Mike the bearded Greek, Lucky the tired Parisian, and I; together we take our Flaneurily stroll through the stalls and outdoor Chinese bars around West Street. At 2am we stride sexily up a hostel stairway and hit Monkey Janes, another snazzy rooftop bar where foreigners and Chinese seem casually separated. We four Anglophones settle in like band-mates on an album cover, and I chat with a Chinese group who has traveled through Tibet. Nothing beats Karla’s travel story, which lasts for three hours as she reveals her week-by-week journey from Kunming to Tibet. On foot.
“That is so incredibly brave,” Mike tells her.
“We Chinese not as brave as Americans,” Karla says. “American men are the bravest.” She lands the phrase with a cigarette drag.
“What crap,” I say in English. “You just traveled to Tibet on foot,”
“American men not brave,” Lucky rants, unleashed by my own disagreement. “They sit at computer and press button to send bomb and sit in front of t.v. and say Mexican men do no work and sit in front of spouse and say oh me dick no working tonight.”
The frazzled French man goes to order another gin and tonic, while Blake, Mike, as well as the nearby Aussies, Europeans and Chinese, all stare at me, the only American in the hostel (as always), expecting me to mount a defense.
“What is bravery anyway?” I soliloquize. “The present is the rhythm. It’s a river. What’s bravery, but setting anchor?”
“Is that why Americans never travel outside of their country?” A drunk Aussie comments.
“Or their suburban homes!” A woman joins the drumbeat.
“Or their couches!” Mike says, perhaps just to bug me.
“What happens,” I say with that teacherly pause. “If we just stopped using the words ‘traveler,’ and ‘tourist,’ and ‘backpacker’? We can just stop. Then what happens? What happens once we really unleash ourselves?” I repeat this in Chinese, badly, which does the work of buying more time while making even less sense.
I’m rescued by one of the black women at our table, Yan, who claims to be from France but speaks as if she is from New Jersey. “You know who’s brave?” she says, landing the phrase with a shot of hard rice wine, baijiu. “Edward Snowden. Now that’s a brave American.”
“Yes, that is who I mean,” Karla says, “Thank you! I just could not remember the name.”
With that, Yan takes her shirt off, exposing a white bra purchased from a convenience store. It’s not an invitation—it’s just hot even at night.
Just as we’re going back to grazing at our Sichuan style peanuts, some of the Chinese from the veranda above us start saying “nigga…nigga…nigga” and all the foreigners look quickly toward Yan, the somewhat French somewhat New England black girl. We bite our lips.
“Shit, I taught English in Beijing for a month,” Yan says. “Hearing that every day. I know it’s just a way of saying ‘well.'”
We remain silent as the man on the second floor continues: “nigga…nigga…nigga…”
“I’m not offended!” Yan shouts. “Seriously!”
I don’t see Lucky again until the next morning, at the hostel, slowly stirring a cup of congee.
“Last night I fall in love,” he tells me. “Beautiful Chinese girl. Crazy in love. We talks all night, until sun come up. But—nothing. She want nothing with me. I think…I think she just want to practice her English.”
I figure I must be getting some kind of good karma for these foreigners following me, so I begin to welcome Mike, Blake and Lucky as if we had planned our little travel tribe. The next day we rent bikes and ride out to Yulong River Valley, to Dragon Cave, to Moon Hill, the Karst mountain peaks watching us along the way.
“Those hills are like big furry monsters,” Blake says.
“They are muppets,” Mike says.
“They are tits,” Lucky says.
“You know that scene in Jurassic Park,” I say. “With the Triceratops shit?”
At Moon Hill, we spend an hour trudging up the mountain. At the top are exhausted foreigners, many with their shirts off or unbuttoned to unleash the pudge beneath. As soon as we reach the peak, Lucky stands in shock, staring at the landscape like he was knifed in Counter Strike for the tenth time in a row. He takes no pictures, just gapes in surrender to the beauty in front of him.
“We did nothing to earn this,” Lucky says to no one in particular. “This is it. Right here. And we do not deserve it.”
I notice Chinese tourists staring at him, so I translate his words best I can. They laugh so hard one of the women starts slapping her husband’s back.