Savior of the Scroll – Guangzhou, China, Asia

The elevator door opened to an entire room full of baby strollers. Needless to say, there were large numbers of babies to say nothing of insanely smiling parents. The babies, all girls, seemed to be taking in the entire scene with equanimity, but the parents were bursting with open joy. I never saw a single boy (other than newly-minted brothers) at the hotel all the time I was there.

The cacophony came from the parents, not the babies, as all the parents, playing an odd kind of one-upmanship, were busily trying to give the best compliment. I heard,

“Look at that smile. She knows you already.”

“When are you going home with your little angel?”

“Have you been to Jennifer’s place for those darling clothes?”

This scene was to be repeated each time I went down to the lobby. The most touching moment for me was to see the middle aged new mother with her baby daughter. It was difficult to offer any sort of complement, even though many tried mightily, the child had a double hair-lip. From both nostrils to her lip were deep openings that would require untold plastic surgeries. I do not know whom I loved the most instantly – the mother or the baby. Later, when I finally found the yellow French Catholic Church, after kneeling, the first spontaneous prayer that came out was, “God, please help this poor little old church", I immediately thought of the girl with the solemn eyes and a future of much agony. She too, got the “God, please help this poor little…”

The White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China, was the place to stay when awaiting the final papers for Chinese adoption. I was staying there, even though I was not adopting a baby, but after three days, I wished I could join in the complement fest.

My first real trip to Guangzhou (I had been for one short day on a packaged tour a couple of years before), and I wanted to stay at the first five-star hotel in the city. It was a little dated, but the waterfall and swiftly moving streams running through the dining room used as fishponds were still wonderful. So was the food. Eating breakfast one morning, I was more than a little surprised to see a bobbing head floating along the Pearl River right outside the dining room window. No doubt the river was one of the most polluted in the world, but the swimmer seemed oblivious to the danger. Strangely enough, there was an article in the English language newspaper the next day about him. The newspaper, for some odd reason, seemed oblivious to the pollution as well.

I had come to Guangzhou to see the tomb of the southern Han emperor, discovered a few years before during one of Guangzhou’s ambitious building projects. The archaeologists kept the design simple for the public viewing, placing on display articles from the tomb itself, but leaving the tomb exactly the way it was found. Those people could not have been over five feet tall; I had to bend very low to get under the impressive cross lentil to the tomb. The emperor had been buried, completely encased in fine small oblong jade pieces that were held together with gold wire. His wife and probably favorite concubine were buried on each side in separate chambers. None of the bodies fared well; the only remains were the odd bones. I felt extraordinarily claustrophobic in the tomb, by myself with his majesty’s bones and the misses’ as well.

The outside was surrounded by apartment buildings. Fortunately, someone dug just deeply enough at this particular spot to uncover one of the marvels of ancient China. Inside, was a strategically placed gift shop that one had to walk through before exiting. I really never mind that sort of thing because I know a lot of money is needed for the upkeep. Some people are very annoyed. My attitude is just keep going if you don’t like it. I did buy a very expensive scroll by an up and coming Guangzhouian painter.

My next stop was the famous jade market; dealers from all over Asia come here to buy their jade. Some of it is in a finished well-polished stage, others are not. When the taxi driver dropped me off, I must have appeared dubious at the rather unpromising-looking locale, but he pointed and smiled and I went into a labyrinth that contained at least 250 small but intriguing shops. I wandered around for at least an hour, too timid to initiate a conversation.

Finally though, I thought this was silly, so I approached a rather grim-looking woman who had a wonderful display. Her sternness changed when I looked like I might buy something. We both whipped out our hand-held solar-powered calculators. I had to assume the materials were the genuine things, either jadeite or nephrite, as the reputation would not have held up if the places were rip-off joints. I did buy several stands of jade beads – the green cabbage color in jadeite, and several pieces of larger beautifully cut pendants. The price was remarkable, I thought, but “real” buyers probably would have paid about half of what I paid. I was happy, nonetheless. I have no idea what jade does to me, but when I get to feel some glorious pieces, I turn into this person who cannot let go of whatever I have. I am certainly not “jaded” about the gemstone.

The next day, I was off to Zhuhai by bus. I had never ridden a Chinese bus, having arrived in Guangzhou by train from Hong Kong. Some of the horror stories had me a bit concerned, but the intrepid traveler had to go on. I took a taxi from the White Swan to a nearby inn that had a small bus station. I arrived at 8:25, fully intending on taking the 9:00 bus. The ticket seller had other ideas; I was rushed out to a waiting bus where the driver took my suitcase while I scampered aboard.

There were two side-by-side open seats, fortunately with no one in either, toward the back of the bus. I hustled down the aisle, failing to see the step-up, and fell flat on my face. My backpack went one way, my glasses another, but my embarrassment stayed right with me. The loud talking did not break for a second. The talkers, seeing this gweilow on his face, losing much face, did not bother to help. This is a common occurrence in China I was to discover. I picked myself up in many construction zones after failing to see something through my bifocals, even missing a step and flying down the rest of them did not elicit any offer of assistance either. I finally got to my seat, slightly miffed. I had scarcely picked myself up and sat down when the bus took off.

About twenty minutes later, one of the ladies stood up, look around, spied me, and came waddling back. She said, “You leave scroll.” It wasn’t a question, rather an accusation. I admitted I had left it in the station after being rushed out so quickly to catch the bus. I was just sick! She shrugged, turned around, and returned to her seat. I realized we were back where we started. I saw the bus ticket seller come running out to the bus with my scroll in hand. The door opened, the scroll was taken, we were off again. No one on the bus seemed to mind the delay. When we stopped for a rest, I retrieved my scroll. The bus driver, upon our arrival in Zhuhai, refused to take a tip for his bother. “No problem,” he said, which seems to be the now-universal response to any sort of thanks. It would have been a problem to me if I had left that very expensive scroll in the bus station.

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