Find your mark. As American as they come. Like this couple, standing a few feet to your left. Around your age, but taller, sturdier, sun-fed and muscular. Their smiles remind you of neatly racked milk bottles.
Study them. They are here in Beijing for vacation. You gather this not from their sensible shoes or the camera slung around his neck or the guidebook wedged under her arm, but their twin expressions, casting about for an image to hoard and later dispense to everyone back home. The boy steps back, squinting at the horizon. He lifts the camera mid-way to his chest and puts it back down. No, not good enough. What about there? The girl poses, first one way, then another, as if she is alone, practicing in front of a mirror. Her sneakers are achingly new. You look down at your leather sandals. You stay up every night buffing out each smudge with a toothbrush.
Time to approach. This part is always the hardest, because you have to be the one to speak first. No matter how much you practice, you wobble and trip over cobblestone syllables, all those vowels lying in treacherous wait. Breathe through your nose. It’s supposed to smooth out the edges. You hear it anyway, the ragged beg in your voice. Remembering that your wretched English is part of the play helps some, but this never gets easier.
“Excuse me. C-can you help?”
Up close, you notice the crinkled corners of his eyes, the dimple in her left cheek. They smell like floral hotel shampoo and strawberry candies left in cellophane for too long. Neither of them says anything. The boy is concentrated on his camera, but the girl meets your gaze squarely.
Talk fast. Leave no room for questions. Start with the introduction, no more than thirty seconds. You find yourself reciting it as you wash your hair, mouthing it when you wake up. You are a student at the university (Which one? Doesn’t matter. Make one up. Not like these lao wai will know the difference.) and you want to practice your English-
“Sorry,” the girl interrupts. “Sorry but we can’t help. Can’t you find someone else? One of your classmates? A friend?” She speaks slowly, shaping each word with exaggerated care.
You are prepared for rejection. “No,” you say. “No friend with me. I want to ask you instead.” They glance at each other. You can almost feel the hook snagging on tender lip. They pity you, but that’s all right. Reel them in. Push ahead, buoyed by their need to attribute weakness, a soft belly of need, to a stranger. You have something they want.
“For your help,” you go on, “perhaps I give you recommendation to places. Not that.” You point to their guidebook. At this, they chuckle, embarrassed. The book is a crutch, only slightly better than careening around on a tour bus and being spoon-fed the sights. You see their desire to avoid being seen as timid tourists, clinging to safe, well-lit neighborhoods. To venture forward and befriend a local.
“All right,” the boy finally says. “But only for half an hour, okay? We have a tight itinerary.”
“Itinerary …?” You feign ignorance. The lesson has already begun. They brighten.
“You know, schedule. We want to see Tiananmen Square next and then some temples. You have a place in mind?”
Of course you do. Along the way, they tell you how much they love the city, how sprawling it is, the endless number of things to explore. The people are just so nice.
Take them to your favorite teahouse. Inside is damp and musty, like being pressed against a sweaty armpit. The walls are scuffed with yellow – dust from the sky blowing in, you always thought, but now, seen from their eyes, it might be urine. Slicks of tea and beer on the tables, crumbs and cigarette butts underfoot. Open staring from the other customers and the manager, who tilts his head at you.
The couple balks. The dirtiness. The gawking – the sort of curiosity that never seems to sate itself, mulling over their hair and features, their clothes, his beard and her earrings, every pore and crevice. They open their mouths, about to suggest that you go somewhere else.
“This is real Beijing,” you offer. A beat. And they give in. After all, who are they to doubt you? Up to now, they have been traveling inside a bubble of incessant coddling, of continental breakfasts and multi-floored shopping malls, of passersby standing a respectful distance apart and then tiptoeing forward, brimming with directions.
The easy part comes once they sit down and you order tea. You don’t nudge the menu closer, a small, laminated card without prices – no need to make it so obvious. Instead, you ask solicitously, “Jasmine, chrysanthemum, barley, oolong, long-leaf, anything you like in particular?”
“Just some herbal tea,” the girl whispers. You spare her the fact that “herbal tea” means nothing here. The boy keeps leaning back every so often before noticing he’s sitting on a stool, not knowing where to put his hands, finally gripping the camera. It resembles a glassy-eyed blackbird, except for the metal sheen that tells you it’s expensive (exactly how much you can’t say, but enough to last you for the next few months, enough to replace your sandals).
The tea comes in a chipped pot, the cups submerged in a separate basin of water. Stale crackers, some broken in half, crowd a third dish. You pour a few drops of tea into the cups, swish them around, dump out the liquid. “Just making sure everything is clean,” you explain, and they nod, impressed. You toast to new friends. Pretend not to see the faces they make when they sip the tea – it’s just brown water, boiled over and over.
Half an hour stretches into one, then two. They ask for your name and you mumble it under your breath and then again, slightly louder. Both times, they nod as though they will remember it. You learn they will be staying in Beijing for a week, then on to Shanghai and Nanjing. They are from Texas, which summons for you images of cowboy hats and T-bone steaks. “That’s not terribly inaccurate,” they laugh. They ask for the best spots in the city to visit. You list a few destinations, ones you think they’ll like or at the very least, describe to their friends as interesting.
“Come on,” the girl presses. “What are the places you really think we should see? The ones that are more out of the way? Be honest.”
You think of the hutong you grew up in. The alleyways were wide enough for only one person to pass through at a time. In the courtyards, children crowded around a roof where pigeons were roosting, trying to coax the birds down, heedless of the women kneeling nearby, scraping clothes against washboards. On one corner, a vegetable hawker unloaded his cart, piled high with cabbage. He once gave you a corn cob whittled into a doll. When it rained, the roads dissolved into muddy soup, making your tattered shoes belch.
“There is one place you should definitely visit. It’s near Xinhua.” You describe it for them, the structure and interior of the hutong, the east-west axis, the tapered roofs, the drum stones in the doorway. How many years has it been? How many years have those walls stood?
It’s only when the girl pipes up that they’d love to see it that you realize your hutong longer exists. Everything has been torn down to make room for apartments and hotels and a Starbucks.
Say yes. Say you will take them there tomorrow. Talk for as long as you can, filling up the teahouse with detailed plans.
Then ask for the check. After a beat, confess stutteringly that you’ve left your wallet at home. Make an elaborate show of contrition. Turn your bag and pockets out again and again. Apologize. Insist you will give them the money tomorrow.
Watch the girl’s smile unbraid.
Watch them consult their wallets, peel each bill apart, come up short, count again, reach the same conclusion. They don’t fully realize the math, the vast gulf between the money they owe and the broken crackers, the weak tea. Later, in the safety of their hotel room, once the Internet connection steadies enough to confirm the yuan to dollar conversion, it will dawn on them.
Watch the boy cradle his camera.
“See you tomorrow,” you promise, your stomach a curdling riot. You tell yourself it’s from the tea.