I’ve been borrowed more times than I can count in China and have probably lost a good many layers of my soul in the process (thank goodness Westerners have little soul still left to lose to the camera lens). I’m a guest here, so I think it’s the least I can do to agree gracefully, and in fact I’ve got so used to it I was quite offended when no one asked to take my picture on Huangshan. Upstaged by the most beautiful mountain in China, imagine.
In return, I’ve borrowed quite a few Chinese people, without always asking their permission.
At the Longji rice terraces, (Guanxi province, South China) it got ridiculous. Picture me practically running up and down mountains, chased by a local woman in the traditional costume of short pleated skirt and embroidered jacket, twinkling along effortlessly on her short muscular calves wrapped in cloth strips like puttees – all for a photo. No question of asking, it was pure coercion. And she didn’t want to take my picture; she was absolutely determined that I take hers.
Longji has been thoroughly packaged into the Chinese Tourist Experience I’m starting to get used to (get sick of). Special viewpoints to see the sunrise and sunset have been signposted to within an inch of their lives along designated tourist paths, and given daft names. And along with the views, the Yao women of the area have been commodified into a tourist attraction.
Or rather, their crowning glory has. Allegedly these women collectively have the longest hair in the world (washed in rice water to keep it soft and lustrous, traditionally worn in big fat lightlessly black rolls on their foreheads). And, like Rapunzel sought by a prince armed with a camera, their long locks have become more significant than they are.
My woman wanted to wash her hair in the stream for me. She wanted to let it down and display its magnificence in front of viewpoint number 1 (Nine Dragons and Five Tigers). Longhairbeautifulphototenyuan. She chased me from Zhongliu halfway to Ping’an; I only got rid of her by sitting down on the path and refusing to budge until she had to walk on. A forty-three year old woman, with two grown-up sons and a grandchild (you see, in-between longhairphototenyuan we managed to have a perfectly normal conversation – as normal as my rubbish Chinese would permit anyway) literally hounding me for the equivalent of one pound, or a meal at a cheap restaurant. It was so undignified. She was old enough to know better.
And then she was everywhere! Assuming I hadn’t finally fallen for that stupid myth that all Chinese people look the same to Westerners, she was waiting for me at viewpoint number 2 (Seven Stars with the Moon). Photolonghairbeautiful. Twophototwentyyuan: by this time she’d picked up a second woman who was probably the same age as my grandmother (and I remembered how when I was little and staying with my grandparents I used to love watching Granny put up her hair, amazed at how its long strands perfectly recalled each morning the shape of the elegant bun it had been worn in every day for as long as I could remember – no fee for that). Then the same woman somehow sneaked up to the path above Ping’an to waylay me yet again. Beautifulphoto. I recognised her, but I’m not sure she recognised me – or maybe she was just assuming I had a very short memory or extremely weak willpower. Longhair beautifulphototenyuan. Fiveyuan.
It could have been quite funny, and I wished my Chinese was good enough to tell her how so many Chinese people wanted to make my picture. But actually I didn’t really find it funny. The two villages that bookended my Longji walk, Tiantouzhai and Ping’an, fairly neatly represent the two ends of tourism development: Tiantouzhai, inaccessible by the dreaded shutterbug, clean and quietish, full of guest houses and some new buildings going up; Ping’an – on a road – solid souvenir shop and new building. But Zhongliu, the village halfway along the route, was just full of rubbish and of local people whom the tourist trade had bypassed, trying desperately to cash in at least a little.
“How much are you paying to stay in Tiantouzhai?” a woman in Zhongliu asked me. And then, taking my arm hopefully, “Here you can pay half that. Come with me…” In the local shop, the girl tried to charge me twice the price for a packet of biscuits.
At least they had no long hair to let down.