10 May 2004

Tiananmen at Night - Lights, Kites and Unfortunate Sights

So after a long day of doing nearly nothing (well, not exactly - I went down to the business district to look around, and also went on a frustrating quest for wireless internet), I headed to Tiananmen for a photo shoot after dark. In the hazy shy, the entire square is lit with a diffuse glow emanating from the oversized ancient and modern structures all around, each lit brighter than the other (except the Mao-soleum, which is somberly dark).

Despite the night, people were still out flying kites, particularly those Chinese multiple kites, made up of dozens of little kites one after another on the same string. These appear to be the favorite of the Tiananmen kite flyers (they are cheap and easy to fly), though there are those who prefer the more modern larger kites, including ones shaped like hang gliders, fighter jets and sharks.

Amid the soft talk, which matched the diffuse lighting quite well, the vendors were still out circling the square, like sharks honing in on the trail of blood. Post cards, book, kites, Mao watches and other assorted paraphernalia flashed out of half-zipped jackets, as quickly for the Chinese as the foreigners. Its all about haggling, no one really expects to get their first offer, but that also means that when you say “no”, it s usually interpreted as the start of the bartering, rather than a declination of goods.

For the most part, even if there is a muttered Chinese phrase (better left un-translated, I’m sure), when it is finally clear that the sale will not take place, the vendors leave with a smile. But tonight, I had my first run-in with a downright rude vendor. He was selling Mao watches, which are pretty cute, with the Chairman’s arm as the hour hand. But he was asking some ridiculous price, like 150 yuan, when just two days before another vendor had started the bidding at just 30. Well, Not only didn’t I really want one, I was sort of offended at the price, but simply declined and tried to (lie) say I already had one.

He offered lower prices, eventually dropping to two for 100 yuan, but when I turned that down, his muttering wasn’t so quiet. And as he walked away, he called over to me, just to raise his pinky finger at me in a (apparently) rude gesture. Then, to make sure I understood fully, he called me again, flashed a thumbs-up, shook his head and said “not anymore,” and then raised his pinky at me again.

Now I know it shouldn’t bother me, but it did, as this was the first person who had been overtly rude to me in China. I am fully used to being ignored or simply not understood over here, with the other person turning away in embarrassment at not being able to communicate, but I had yet to encounter this sort of behavior. I guess I have become sensitized after weeks of overtly friendly behavior in South Korea and relatively benign or occasionally helpful and cheerful behavior in China.

And while I realize it was an isolated case, and quite frankly people are people no matter where one goes, it has left a bitter taste that I cant quite shake, like when one finds out that their best friend went behind their back to tell an unsavory story or when one’s pet, for no apparent reason, turns and bites them.

And with the unfortunate lingering aftertaste of the realization that the imagined ideals were really a self-projected desire rather than reality, I leave you to ponder human nature and the darkness under the lights at Tiananmen.

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