Bull in China
假装 jiăzhuāng (v. to pretend, masquerade, disguise)

Suzhou. It’s another hour before I can board my train back to Shanghai but I’m wringing wet and don’t fancy wading around town until then, so I’ve come early to the station.

There’s a gaggle of beggars doing the rounds, working the aisles in waves. Organized. Coordinated.  Directed. They’re those ones that claim to be deaf and carry immaculately laminated cards bilingually explaining their affliction. She gets the brush off from everyone, eventually shuffling her way over to me. Now, I don’t mind beggars all that much but I do hate when they single out the foreigner for extra attention. This one’s no different. I can see her calculating the expense of my camera in her head.

She points at her ears and commences her well-rehearsed routine, attempting to convince me of her plight. I’m unmoved. She continues for three long minutes but I put my head down and ignore her. Eventually giving up, she moves on to irritate someone else.

Five minutes later. She’s back. Apparently she didn’t get the message.

          “I should carry a laminated card explaining I don’t give a shit”, I think to myself.

I wave her away, accidentally clipping her hand as I do so. This angers her, although when a mute loses their temper it’s more pantomime than threat. Her hilariously exaggerated facial expressions and flailing arm movements attract a sizeable crowd. They laugh uproariously. The woman turns to scowl at them.

Hey … wait a minute … she … she heard them!

Busted. Back to fraud school for you.

Farmer, Anhui

Farmer, Anhui

Discard farmer’s hat, Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi

Discard farmer’s hat, Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi

Li River, Yangshuo

Li River, Yangshuo

招徕 zhāolái (v. to solicit business, canvass)

We’re sitting in the sun just off West Nanjing Road enjoying a long Friday lunch (actually lunch was eaten some time ago but we’re in no hurry to get back to the office). It’s a foreigner friendly place and there are plenty of ex-pat faces.

A shoeshine woman comes by, swinging her wooden box of creams and brushes. She circles our table, appealing for customers. She’s civil enough, just a woman trying to make a living, but neither of us has shoes in need of a polish (casual Friday) and we politely decline. She moves along. We chat some more.

10 minutes later. She comes back. Perhaps she’s more persistent that we first realized. She starts going around our group again. I interrupt her.

                “You already asked us. We already said no.”

She steps back and appraises our faces.

                “Oh. Sorry. I thought you were different ones.”

She packs up her creams and ducks away.

                “White faces all look the same to me” she adds.

识别 shíbié (v. to distinguish, identify, tell the difference between)

I’m heading to the gas company’s ‘local’ office to pay four bills late (normal). It’s a good 30 minute walk. The streets are fairly quiet out here, where the map is barely filled in. Not many people venture so far west unless they are either A: local or B: a foreigner too lazy to pay bills punctually.

There are signs of commerce but only of the homegrown variety. A tobacco stand. A glass cutting workshop (in which the family also live). A fruit and vegetable seller. If there was a line here would be the end of it. The gas company office is down an anonymous alley, indicated only by graffiti scrawled in green on a crumbling wall. I’ve made this trip once before and I remember where to go.

As I stroll the final hundred yards I’m spotted by a small boy crouching on the pavement outside his parents’ shop. The mother is squatting too, across the threshold like a sentry, chewing on seeds which she spits out on the step. The steps of her own business. There’s quite a pile around her, like spent bullets. She’s obviously been defending the position for quite a while.

The boy, perhaps four years old, leaps from his squat energetically. He runs towards me, covering about 20 yards in a matter of seconds. He stops a stride in front of me, points up and turns to his mother.

                “Hey, mum. Is that a foreigner?” he calls back to her.

 She nods and spits out another seed.

                “I was right!” he says proudly, satisfied with his skills of detection.

控告 kònggaò (v. to accuse, charge; n. accusation)

I’ve just been to the inconvenience store around the corner to pay a bill on time (a rarity) and am a minute in to the ten-minute homeward journey. Alongside the pavement runs a bike lane. Scooters buzz by with no lights on. Suddenly I hear a skid, followed by a crash and a furious female scream. I turn to see an upturned cardboard box on the road, 20 yards behind the moped it just fell from. Three dozen beer cans (unopened) are escaping in all directions down the road. A middle-aged woman darts about trying to retrieve them before anyone else does. Approaching bikes swerve to avoid her and the tumbling obstacles. Ever the Good Samaritan I decide to help. I gather up four cans, stack them on end between my palms and start back to hand them over. Almost immediately the woman sees me, jumps to a racist conclusion and hollers into the evening.

               “Thief! Stop him, that foreigner is stealing my beers!”

I explain that I am in fact coming to the rescue.


She points nonchalantly towards the cardboard box.

                “Put them there.”

I put them there. She recovers them all. No casualties. She gets on the moped and rides off. No thanks. No apology.