A Slight Misunderstanding

May 12, 2015 at 12:00 AM

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*Introductory Note* What you’re about to read actually happened while on an internship during Fall of 2014. In order to protect people’s privacy, I’m not including the names of my friends, the name of the company I was employed with at the time, or the name of my university. But after you read my account, if you feel skeptical or otherwise have any questions about my experience, feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] I know the address looks like a spam e-mail, but QQ is actually an extremely popular social networking site in mainland China as Facebook, Twitter, and all the western networks are blocked by the Chinese government. The reason for the suspicious username is that your QQ number is randomly generated and assigned to you when creating an account (that’s right, your identity is literally reduced to an itemized number until you provide personal details on your account).

In fall of 2014 I got a job as a supervisor over 13 volunteer English teachers. I would be working in a Chinese city called Weihai [pronounced ‘way high’] located in Shandong [shawn doe-ng] Province. The company that hired me sends English teachers to Mexico, India, China, Russia, and Ukraine each semester. I was super excited at the opportunity because not only would I have the chance to live in China again (I’d originally been one of the volunteers for this same program several years prior), but my university was willing grant me a semester’s worth of Chinese language credits as an academic internship. I could get good job experience, live abroad in a country that I consider my second home and complete a semester of school, it was my dream semester!

In Weihai, the volunteers and I lived and worked at a prestigious international private school. They treated us really well, one of the biggest perks being that in addition to taking the same vacation days as the school’s faculty that took place over China’s national holidays, we also got an extra week or two of personal vacation time. It was during one of these vacations that I had one of the most disturbing experiences of my life.

Two of my friends from the group, I’ll call them Sara and David, decided they wanted to travel down south to China’s Guangdong [gwahng doe-ng] Province during the Dragon Boast Festival. I suggested that we visit Yangshuo [yahng sh-whoa] a little-known village surrounded on all sides by the region’s gorgeous mountains. I’d visited it a year before and wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to visit there again. Search Google images of Yangshuo’s scenery and you’ll understand why I’m so crazy about the place.

Yangshuo isn’t a large town, but even so, if you plan to do everything that you want to while you’re there, you need transportation since most of the things to do are out in the countryside. The problem was that we’d chosen a super busy time of year to visit such a popular tourist location. All the traffic in the area the entire 6 days we were there was literally a continuous traffic jam, so taking cabs or hiring rickshaws wasn’t an option. We were fine though, as we’d rented some bikes which gave us the freedom to go anywhere we wanted. It actually worked out even better than relying on cabs because we would be able to get to some of the places that were out of the way an inaccessible by car.

I remembered some mud caves pretty deep in the countryside that I’d visited before. It was about an hour outside of town by bike, so it was more than a little out of the way, but its secluded nature was one of the reasons it was such an appealing destination, especially during such a busy holiday where it was a nice to have a break from all the tourists. I convinced Sara and David to make the trip to these mud caves, explaining how we’d already done everything there is to do immediately around the city. They reluctantly agreed, and the morning of the 5th day, we grabbed our bikes and headed out.

We rode for an hour. An hour and a half. Two hours. After the two hour mark I realized that I must’ve gotten us lost. Granted, it had been quite a while since I’d last been there, so I think it’s understandable that I didn’t remember the route. Regardless, I felt stupid and guilty because I’d talked up the mud caves so much to my friends and it looked like we weren’t even going to make it to them. Not only that, we seemed to be in a completely isolated section of countryside. I spoke the language, so finding our way back to town wasn’t going to be a problem. Provided we found another person. From what it looked like, we were in the middle of the wilderness. I was worried that I’d inadvertently wasted one of the last days of our vacation.

I explained the situation to my friends who groaned and were noticeably annoyed at me but who, to their credit, didn’t complain or even blame me for ruining their vacation. That actually made me feel even worse about my screw-up. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I knew that losing a vacation day was no small matter to them.

We stopped our bikes and began discussing what we should do. Should we continue following the current trail and maybe find someone further along the way, should we try to backtrack and run into someone closer to the main road? Should we just abandon our original plan and try to find something else to do out in the country?

While we were deciding what course of action we should take, I noticed some old-looking buildings hidden within a valley, obscured by the thick vegetation clinging to the steep mountain slopes. I was elated; there was bound to be some people in or around those buildings and it couldn’t have been more than a 15-minute ride from where we currently were! Aside from which, some of the most memorable places in China are the ones that you stumble upon by accident, the ones that aren’t known as big touristy places. Our bad luck could turn out to be a good thing after all.

It was evident as we rode our bikes into the enclave that it had been abandoned for some time. The buildings were obviously once part of an old commune from the Maoist era when Communism was in full swing and everyone was required to live in communal compounds. After Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping [Dung Shyow Ping] started on economic reforms to move China away from Communism, people deserted these communes to make a life in the city and chase a capitalistic dream. So what we’d stumbled upon was actually a really cool piece of Chinese history. We decided to check it out, look around, take some pictures, etc. etc. The entire compound was an enormous siheyuan [sih huh yuwhen], which is essentially a house contained in the walls surrounding a large courtyard that usually contain smaller structures (again, you can Google it for a better idea of what it looks like). In this case, though, it wasn’t just a single household, it was an entire walled community. The walls themselves comprised the living quarters, the central area contained an overgrown field where they would’ve kept the publicly-owned livestock. It looked like some animals had taken up residence since the people left; some goats and cows grazed the long grass and chickens clucked around their feet. Scattered around the perimeter of the field were a few run-down buildings dotting the compound which I assume at one point were the dining hall and some small for textile mills or small-time industrial production plants, depending on what this place specialized in.

We checked around the living area, and it was immediately clear that this place had been abandoned for several decades. The rooms were almost completely vacant, only furniture and a few odd assortments of possessions—woks, chopsticks, portraits of Mao—were left behind, creating a sort of gloomy atmosphere amid the cracked, crumbling walls.

We snapped some pictures, recorded some videos and just generally took in the scenery. We were getting ready to leave when I heard a voice coming from the far end of the commune. Was somebody still living here? It was possible. We had seen some animals left in the central area, after all. I’d assumed they were wild, but it made sense that somebody was still raising them. In fact, it probably made more sense because it didn’t seem very likely that stray animals would find their way inside a gated community like this.

We approached the apartment where the voice was coming from. The front door was slightly ajar and the rich smell of incense wafted out. The voice continued droning on, almost like a chant.

David spoke up. “You think this guy knows the way back to Yangshuo? You should ask for directions.”

I thought maybe the person inside was performing some kind of religious ceremony, so I was reluctant to interrupt him, and I said as much.

“We don’t know how long they’re going to take in there. Do you seriously just want wait outside their door for a couple hours like a bunch of creepers? Just knock on the door and if what they think they’re doing is really important, then they’ll ask us to wait and give us directions when they’re done.”

I was a little bit annoyed by that because David had a tendency to use our celebrity status as white people to expect special treatment from Chinese nationals. I preferred to try to blend in with the culture as much as I could, and I have a strong respect for local customs, particularly religious ones. But he also had a point—Chinese people are naturally hospitable and eager to help others. If this person was a devout Buddhist or Daoist, then their willingness to help us would be even greater, and would most likely drop whatever they were doing the second they saw us.

So I rapped lightly on the door. There was no response. I knocked a bit louder, and the person continued mumbling to themselves. I opened the door slightly and called out to them to alert them of our presence.

“Wei? (Way?) Ni hao! (Knee how!)” The the chanting stopped for a moment, almost imperceptibly, but then continued as though nothing happened. I pushed the door open all the way and saw an elderly, hunchbacked man wandering around the room, shaking a wooden tool as he hobbled about, mumbling his incantation.

He was certainly a Communist-era comrade. His hunched posture and wrinkled, yet calloused skin, told of years of hard work. He was practically doubled over at the waist and only had a few wispy white hairs on the top of his head. His clothes were the classical Communist fare; dark-gray pants with a matching button-up shirt that reached his Adam’s apple along with a squared-off cap. He must’ve taken great care of his clothing because they were in surprisingly good shape, considering they were from around the 1950’s. It’s not like anyone could find a replacement for era-specific clothing 60 years after the fact.

Even more surprising than his physical appearance however, was the state of his apartment. Given how empty the rest of the rooms were in this commune, I was shocked at how decorated this one was. It looked as though he’d scavenged everything his neighbors had left behind when they left. None of the walls were accessible because tables had been pushed up against them, occupying every inch of the room’s perimeter. The tabletops were completely covered by candles, statues of miniature Buddhas in various poses, wilted flowers, beaded bracelets and necklaces, the shoes of infants, calligraphy drawn carefully on rice paper, and what looked like the personal effects of loved ones who had either passed away or abandoned him. There looked to be thousands of other items that I couldn’t even begin to identify.

I approached him and began to speak, asking if he was familiar with Yangshuo and if he would be able help us find our way back to the main road. In response, he only muttered a short phrase

“Wo shao si ge ren [whoa sh-ow sih guh run].”

Wo shao si ge ren? ‘I’m short 4 people?’ Was this person expecting company?

“Excuse me?” I asked, in Mandarin.

“Wo shao si ge ren!” he repeated again, urgently. He glanced at me, and then his eyes darted to Sara and David. He looked between the three of us, repeating this phrase over and over. I felt bad. This poor man must have been senile. Maybe his friends or family had left the commune and promised to come back and he was still awaiting their return. Or maybe he was just pretty far gone and honestly believed he was preparing to receive 4 guests who hadn’t yet arrived. I tried communicating with him a few more times, but he simply continued mumbling this cryptic phrase, shaking the wooden object in his hand.

I took a closer look and realized I’d seen the object he was holding before. It was a religious instrument used for venerating statues of Buddha. Similar to how Catholics believe that partaking of the Eucharist purifies members of their sins, Buddhists use tools like the one this man was shaking to sprinkle statues of Buddha with water, symbolically cleansing themselves. They were shaped like Spanish maracas and were riddled with tiny holes that would allow for a several of water to escape from each hole with each shake. Sometimes people would infuse the water with lavender or other herbs to invoke a pleasant smell. I don’t know what this man had mixed in with the water, but it was a pretty putrid smell.

I ignored it and turned back to Sara and David.

“What’s he saying?” Sara asked.

“He just keeps saying, ‘I’m missing 4 people’,” I replied.

“What does that mean?”

“Honestly, I have no clue. But I have a feeling he’s not going to be able to help us. Should we just try to head back to the main road and hopefully we’ll run into someone there who can give us directions?”

“What the hell!” David yelled. Sara and I spun to look at him.

“That old guy just soaked me!” He complained, motioning to a wet spot on his shirt. I rolled my eyes.

“Give him a break,” I said, “He obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing.” As I said this, the elderly man continued to shuffle around the room, sprinkling water on the statues of Buddha and the other artifacts laid out on the tables, all the while muttering ‘wo shao si ge ren, wo shao si ge ren.’

“I’m fine with just going, but you should at least ask him if he has any water. My bottle’s completely empty,” Sara said. It was a good idea to get a refill before we left. Yangshuo is ridiculously humid and hot year round, so even though it was already late October, it felt like mid-July in Florida. We were so sweaty that we could easily get dehydrated just by standing around, even if without riding bikes.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I responded. I was about to turn to the man for one last attempt at communication, to hopefully find out where we could get some water.

He violently shook the maraca-like tool, drizzling water on my shoes and the floor around my feet. Some even splashed up on the pant legs of my shorts.

“Wo shao si ge ren…” he muttered again, but this time, it caused a chill to run through me. Something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was wrong.

“Wo shao si ge ren…”

I took a step towards the man and felt my foot slide slightly it touched the floor. I looked down and saw the unnatural layer of gray dust that had collected on the floor. How could there be so much dust on the floor if someone lived here?

“Wo shao si ge ren…”

I was getting increasingly uncomfortable and felt the urge to leave, but I couldn’t understand why. I glanced over to Sarah, about to speak, when I realized something I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe I missed it due to all the clutter, but this room was in noticeably worse condition than the others. The walls had black stains on them, the wood in the window frame was blackened and seemingly shattered, far more brittle than those of other apartments. It almost seemed like this specific apartment survived a series of accidents, but was still somehow standing. So why was this the only room left occupied?

“Wo shao si ge ren…”

The broken old man shuffled past once again and this time I got a quick spray in the face. The powerful odor assaulted my nostrils. The smell of the scented water was off. It was too potent, too abrasive. It almost had a…toxic fragrance to it. It made me want to cough, to get it out of my nose and throat.

“Wo shao si ge ren…”

An icy shiver ran through me as I made a sudden realization.

“Guys, we need to go, now.” I said. I didn’t wait for Sara or David to respond, I made for the door and ran until I reached my bike.

“Hey! What’s going on?” David called out as midway through the courtyard.

“Why’d you ditch us?” Sara asked. They’d both caught up to me and were mounting their bikes, slightly out of breath. I didn’t answer them. We rode the trail we entered through in silence. After only about half an hour of riding we stumbled upon some hikers, both Swedish. They spoke impeccable English, which was good because I wasn’t in the mood for talking and Sara was eager to take over so we could find our way back to the hostel. It wasn’t until later that evening when we were back at the hostel that Sara insisted that I tell them what had me so freaked out.

“What’s going on? Ever since we were at that creepy old guy’s house you’ve been acting really weird.”

I didn’t want to tell them because I was hoping that if I kept it to myself then maybe the realization I made would somehow be less real. Maybe if I didn’t say it out loud, then I could believe that it hadn’t really happened. But it had. Remaining silent about it wouldn’t change that.

I sighed.

“You know what the guy kept repeating?”

“Yeah, you told us it means ‘I’m short 4 people’. That can’t be what’s bothering you, though…”

“That’s not what he was saying. I heard it wrong,” I replied.

You see, the thing about Chinese is that tones make all the difference. For example, if you hear ge ge (guh guh), it could either mean ‘older brother’ or ‘each and every’, depending on what tones are used. What I thought was “I’m missing 4 people” wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t until I understood what he had actually sprayed me with that I realized I’d been hearing the tones wrong.

He wasn’t sprinkling water all over his apartment. He was sprinkling kerosene. And he wasn’t saying “I’m missing 4 people,”. What he was really saying was

“I burned everyone.”

Note*
The Romanization of the phrases and their Chinese translations are as listed below.

I’m missing 4 people:
wǒ shǎo sì ge rén
我少四个人

I burned (literally burn-kill) everyone:
wǒ shāo sǐ gè rén
我烧死各人

Credit To – nibris

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