“Hey you,” the vending lady barked at us. “You buy souvenir.”

“No, no, thank you.” I said, as politely as I could, pressing my lips together in that unintentionally patronizing, very American way. She stalked off, muttering not quite under her breath. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood the meaning. We were being cussed out in Mandarin.

Over the next few minutes, as we moved from the ticket booth to the entrance of the gondolas that would take us to the Great Wall of China, women in jeans and sweatshirts approached us in brusque English, insisting that we purchase a souvenir book or a set of postcards or a Chinese fan. And with each rebuff, they’d turn away abruptly and say something to the others that would either elicit a laugh or a hmph from the group. My traveling companions and I all looked at each other, not wanting to be rude but wanting to be rid of the hassling. We’d come to see the Wall, not to be pressured into buying overpriced kitsch.

One lady in particular, however, had a different approach. She calmly asked us if we would consider taking a look at her souvenirs on our way back down from the Wall. Responding to her relatively polite demeanor, I told her that we’d think about it, but no guarantees. She then said that she’d be heading up to the Wall as well and that she’d see us up there. I said that was fine, but we weren’t promising that we’d buy anything. She disappeared and we hopped into a couple of gondolas for the ride up to the Wall.

Swaying a few hundred feet in the air over steep, verdant hills, we could see an unpaved pathway running parallel to the gondola route, the woman who I’d last spoken to and her friend trekking along it at a brisk pace. The gondolas, however, moved slowly, granting us striking views of the undulating hills crested by the Wall, but also giving the saleswomen time to reach the landing and offer their hands to help us alight.

A gravel path led the hundred or so yards from the gondola landing to the Wall and the ladies trailed us, hanging back a few feet and talking to each other. Meanwhile, our little group decided to take a few pictures before climbing onto the Wall itself. The women offered to take our pictures for us, the one I’d been talking to speaking quite good English and the other not speaking much at all. But we declined, knowing that we’d be expected to pay for that offer. I reiterated our intention to consider her wares at the end of our visit, but not promising to buy anything.

Still, she followed at a respectful distance, offering unsolicited but informative insights about the length of the Wall and on which side lay Mongolia. We walked up the stairs and onto the Wall in silence, awed by the ancient and imposing energy of the thing. The overcast day and remote location of this particular piece of the Wall meant very few visitors that day; the saleswoman explained, matter-of-factly, that because of the low tourist turnout, the vendors were all strapped for customers and, therefore, cash. She said that most of the women, herself included, had been farmers in the nearby villages, but could make more money with the increased tourist trade, as more and more foreigners visited China. I understood and appreciated her straightforwardness, thinking that, unlike the others, she understood how to approach a potential customer and that I’d at least consider buying something small.

My companions and I walked up and down the waves of the Wall, still awe-struck, stopping to take pictures of each other and the landscape and stones and turret windows and Chinese flags atop sentry towers. The tension between our group and the saleswomen gradually eased and I asked the lady I’d been talking to how her English became so good. She said she’d had lots of practice with tourists. Her friend followed along silently, offering a helping hand intermittently when we came to the un-restored portion of the Wall, covered with loose and jagged stones. I kind of felt bad for her, because I knew she’d be expecting something for following us around and I knew she’d most likely be getting nothing for her trouble, bless her heart.

Damp with sweat from our surprisingly strenuous trek up and down a length of the Wall (in China, in August, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity), my group started to commiserate about what we’d try to pay the woman I’d been talking to for her friendliness and guidance on the Wall. We decided on 30 yuan, admittedly not much, but enough for a couple of super-sized combos at McDonald’s or two tall, skinny lattes at Starbucks. None of us were interested in the kitsch, especially at Great Wall prices.

At last, the moment of truth: We announced our intention to return to base camp (i.e. the parking lot) and offered the 30 yuan to the woman I’d been talking to. She immediately insisted that we buy one of her souvenir books at 100 yuan. We immediately said no, offering her the 30 again. She lowered her price for the book to 80 and we said no again and started walking towards the gondola landing, still offering her the 30. Her friend followed along, saying nothing but holding fans and postcard books toward us. She still didn’t seem to want to take the 30 yuan, or the hint that we wouldn’t be buying anything.

Then we tried to board the gondola but got stopped by the attendant. “Your ticket is one-way only. Forty yuan to go down.” (We really should have looked that up before leaving home.)

So, 45 to enter the place upon arrival, 40 to go up to the Wall, and now 40 to come back down. I muttered not quite under my breath, “man, now I know I ain’t buyin’ shit.” The ladies continued to beseech us loudly to buy something. The woman said that there was a cheaper way down to the parking lot; we could walk and then have money to buy something. Exasperated, bamboozled, and with credit card swiped, I said, loudly (not yelled, mind you), “No! You want money to come in here, money to go up, money to go down, no more money. We aren’t rich!”

One of my friends asked the woman, “Do you want this 30 yuan or not?” She had about 30 seconds to make up her mind before we hit them gondolas and she quietly accepted the money. Then, as we boarded, she said “You come see my store at bottom,” and turned towards the path beneath the gondola wires.

“Damn, you try to be nice…” I said, thinking that this must be how it feels for women who try to politely fend off unattractive suitors, when said suitors just don’t get the damn hint. Maybe it’s just better to be a bitch up front.

We passed the ladies on the way down and, once on the ground, joked about needing to run before they caught up with us. Not a New York minute later, they caught up to us on bikes, flying out of the trees like vampires or CGI zombies or whatever brand of swiftly moving undead you’d care to liken them to. I could feel a blood-curdling scream bubble up in my throat, but what actually escaped my mouth and reverberated throughout the otherwise-quiet valley was a corpulent “God dammit!”

Our group remained silent and walked the half-mile or so towards the car, ignoring the ladies on the bikes who just would. not. give. up. We hastily walked the gauntlet, past a row of shabbily arranged souvenir and drink stands, each proprietor holding out her merchandise and yelling “Hey” at us. The silent woman got to her stand first and silently, desperately held out some cookies toward us. There was anguish in her face as we passed her by with shrugs.

The woman I’d been talking to finally reached her booth and said, “Come on, friend, you buy book for 60!” As we passed by, I couldn’t even look directly at her anymore, catching the pained expression on her face in my peripheral vision, as if her I were her best elementary school friend who had dropped her to hang with the cooler kids on the first day of junior high.

And as I write this, I realize that I never even asked the woman’s name.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for writing this – an honest and humbling reminder. I really like the way you told this story (although I did sort of guess the moral from the title :-). The image of those women walking up the path while the tourists rode the gondola is striking. DANG that’s a lot of work to do, to sell some souvenir for 60 yuan or whatever. People will always do what they have to, to survive, and it’s a reminder to me of how hard some people have to work to survive. If I ever visit China I will try not to be an American douche.

  2. I don’t see how your group was being douchey or somehow disrespectful. You paid what it cost to see the site, all the other stuff is optional. I’m supposed to feel bad because I’m simply not interested in the souvenirs? I understand that the ladies you described make their living this was, however, I don’t believe getting turned down be one group from time to time is going to kill them. They ain’t gon’ die. They will survive I’m sure and go on to make money the next go round. Westerners (those who have agency to travel) have (what I can only describe as) some sort of Privilege-Guilt. I have dealt with it too. Sometimes it’s ok to say no.

  3. This is interesting; Paul, I think what Fly Brother is trying to get at is that $10 (or so) means/meant so much more to the Chinese people there selling their wares. Granted, $10 is $10, but an American visiting the Wall can typically afford to ‘lose’ the money. Having experienced something similar – the “all they want is my money” feeling, when I was a young sailor visiting the Philippines, I understand the perspective. It is privilege, and the guilt is something better addressed immediately (in current situation) than in hindsight.

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