It is mid-morning in Guilin, a small city on the Li River whose fantastic steep mountains are depicted in ancient Chinese brush paintings. The latitude is about that of Miami, and the mood is tropical. I am standing on a sunny, stone promenade with a few broad steps leading down to the shallow river shoals, here looking not much different than the Brandywine. Two pretty teenaged girls in jeans and pony tails—who would pass for typical Americans in any of our malls—are on the bottom step chatting happily as they wash bedclothes in the river water. They wring out a heavy spread together, and as one stumbles with the effort she sees me watching and we both laugh.
I turn and find an elderly farm woman less than ten feet away, wearing a brown jacket and trousers, staring at me with unrestrained curiosity. She does not move or avert her eyes. Our culture interprets a stare as hostile, but we were warned that many newcomers to the cities have never seen a non-Asian and will innocently stare as if studying a monkey in a zoo.
With an elaborate tip of my hat and a deep, theatrical bow, I smile and greet her with a “Ni hao.” She is momentarily astonished when the monkey talks, but immediately breaks into a large smile showing more gold bling than a rap star and excitedly nods over and over in return. I obviously made her day—and she mine.