I’ll start with an embarassing fact: I’ve never been on a proper spring break beach trip. You know the one I mean, with shoddy hotel rooms and frisbees and sunburn and shameless flirtation and an obscene amount of beer. I’ve never done all that (by choice). So when I found out we were going to the beautiful blue waters of the South China Sea (those photos on the website are in no way doctored, right? wrong), I was absolutely buzzing. We arrived in Beihai, a beach-side city home to 1,500,000, small by Chinese standards but actually the fastest growing urban center in the world, at about 6 a.m. on a Monday, and, too early to check in to our hostel, we set out to find something substantial to fill our bellies with after a bumpy night (Chinese night buses are a great to travel, if you’re 5’5”, any taller than that, and you’ll wish your knee caps were detachable.) About halfway into a round of noodles, a man, about thirty with a smile like a loyal dog came into the restaurant and started chatting us up. It began as a typical conversation between CET’ers and a Chinese person:
You know Chinese?
Yes, we study in Beijing.
Wow, your Chinese is great!
Thanks, I mean, no it’s not, you’re too polite.
What country are you from?
I love America!
What made this conversation different was the way Danny, as we would later come to know him, smiled and laughed and shared. He genuinely wanted us to enjoy Beihai, and as much as we had been warned about overly friendly strangers, we couldn’t help befriending Danny. Two nights later we found ourselves in Danny’s restaurant, crowded around a table full of noodles and beer cans and wantons and squid, all on the house, with Danny and his wife, Linda, learning how to say choice words in Canto-Mando, comparing Nick To to Harry Potter, and taking photos with Danny’s iPhone. The Danny adventure could have ended that night, but we insisted on treating them to a seafood dinner on our last night in town, which led to them treating us to a picnic the following afternoon. In all honesty, I’m glad we left when we did, as I’m not sure how much longer we could have maintained the neverending game of ingratiation that Danny and Linda were well-practiced in. In twenty years, when I’m getting fat off the comforts of middleagedom (knock-on-wood), I won’t remember the plane ride and the skinny dipping and the sandcastle competition and how the bus fare was 1.5元 (most inconvenient when loose change is hard to come by), but I will remember three things, two of which are Danny related. I’ll always remember the look on Danny’s 9 year-old daughter’s face when we gave her an English name, Rachel. When she said it for the first time, a giggle followed it out, reminding us all that she was every bit Danny’s kid. I’ll always remember the day we left, and how the owners of the hostel took our 300元 deposit and made us fork over another 120元 because four of our towels were “sandy.” Danny had come to pick us up for our picnic, and when he heard what was happening, a different kind of energy took over him, and he gave the hostel owner a piece of his mind. Later, he explained that the owners were Northerners, and by cheating us foreigners, they were giving Beihai a bad name. When he said this, only one thing came to mind. Carpetbaggers. Danny is just a good old Southern boy who hates no-good, rotten, penny pinching carpetbaggers. Lastly, I’ll always remember the way the people of Beihai stared at us. In Beijing, the staring is more disdain than anything else, as if they’re thinking there goes another foreigner clogging up the subway system. In Beihai, there was a well-established routine. If the passerby was older in age, he would just stare, mouth open, eyebrows arched. If he was younger, he would stare, mouth open, eyebrows arched, and add a poorly imitated “Halo!” and a wave, too boot. At first, it was a mystery, but in five days, we only saw five foreigners in Beihai, all at sites well away from where we stayed. Beihai thought we nine Americans, with our hammocks and our bikinis and our Beijing accents, were pretty special. The feeling was mutual.