The boy held out a piece of fruit and looked into my Western eyes.  With the confident familiarity of someone who frequently came into contact with foreign tourists, but with no discernible greed or manipulativeness, he asked me for some paltry sum for it—an amount that he no doubt knew would be insignificant to me, though I’m sure no local would have paid half that much.  He and his brother smiled, along with the other village residents standing around us, and their smiles were genuine.  Their warmth touched me across so many divides: age, ethnicity, upbringing, culture, geography, material wealth.  But it also made me intensely conscious of all of those divisions.  I was moved both by a kind of sympathy for the limitations that I knew this boy’s life would be lived within and by an unexpected jealousy that I would never experience the kind of life he seemed to be living quite happily—a life uncomplicated and untainted by the questionable influences of modern American life.  More than anything, what touched me was a profound sense of the beauty of the place and the people in it.  Standing there on that long staircase that climbed up the side of the gorge from the waters of the Yangtze, I felt that this moment was the culmination of many years of dreaming for me.  For so long I had wanted to stand in this place, to see these sights, to talk with people like this, to feel these feelings, and it was all more meaningful than I know how to communicate to anyone.

I gave the boy what he had asked and thanked him in Mandarin. I was caught so off guard emotionally that I didn’t think about what I was doing, and I’ve often wanted to smack myself for not saying more, for not giving more.  It was such an inadequate gesture, inadequate to express all that I wished I could somehow share with him and with everyone there. But maybe in the end that simple response was the best thing I could have done.  Would offering more money have seemed like a kind of insult?  Was there anything I could have said that would have been understood better than a heartfelt “thank you”?

That encounter occurred during a Three Gorges cruise on my first trip to Mainland China in 2001.  Although I’ve had any number of memorable experiences in China of every kind, probably the most emotionally profound experiences I’ve had have been in my contact with people living in China’s rural areas.  The sense I always get when I’m in China of life being lived more deeply, with more immediacy and more vitality, is magnified in areas that are less touched by modernization and Westernization.  The people living in these areas seem more there—less distracted, less needy, less divided, in the way that modern media technology, consumer culture, and the faster-paced life of cities seem to make us all.

On a trip to Jiangxi a few years later, I had a similar experience in a small rural village, a place that was definitely not part of the China promoted by flashy tourism advertisements and government propaganda.  A member of our group of friends had grown up there, and we were invited to spend a day with the locals.  I was told that I was the first foreigner (or perhaps they meant the first Westerner) ever to visit their village.  Who knows whether that was literally true, but I definitely felt like a bit of a celebrity, with a group of local children constantly crowded around me.  They were fascinated with my camcorder and had me play back recordings of them several times so they could see themselves.  As  with the boy in the Yangtze village, the untainted joy of these children left a deep impression on me.  But instead of trying to capture the experience in words, I’ll let this video footage tell a little of the tale:

I hope that everyone who travels to China is fortunate enough to have experiences like these with the local people.  They’re easy to find, even while in a tour group and even within a big city, if you’re open to them.  To say that they can be life-changing may be a cliché, but it’s not an exaggeration.


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