Foreign adventure: friendship, scenery and discount T-shirts

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September 7, 2007

4:16 AM

A word of advice: No one in China wants to be your friend. After studying abroad in China this summer, I learned that people are only nice to Westerners for two reasons: They want to sell you something, or they want your organs.

p. I went to China with a group of students from the College. While I wanted to become acquainted with my fellow Americans, their friendship was not my prize. More than anything, I desired a Chinese friend — someone to affirm in me a sense of worldliness and tolerance. I wanted to brag about my foreign friend to everyone I knew. He could teach me the Chinese equivalents for useful English words, such as vampire or clown car. In exchange, I would tell him about my life as a student. I imagined writing long letters, and then waiting eagerly in line at the post office.
“Hello again James, another letter to your friend in China?” a postal worker would ask, remembering my name after seeing me so often.

p. “What, this? Oh, yes. A flood wiped out all the crops in my friend’s village. Without television or running water, my letters are the only things that bring him joy.”

p. “How sad,” the postal worker would say.

p.Our first day in China, my study group visited the Great Wall. Almost immediately, a small Chinese woman approached me. “Hello, friend. Are you climbing the Great Wall?” she asked me.
“Climbing the Great Wall I am,” I explained in substandard Chinese. “You me walk together?” She smiled and nodded. I was swept away on a flood of elation. After only one day in China, I was being requisitioned for friendship by complete strangers.
I knew little of my friend. For most of the journey she spoke in Chinese, and I nodded eagerly. When we stopped at an overlook, she asked to take my picture. I assumed that she would love to, and would be astounded by the wonders of electronic technology.

p. If anything, I was doing her a favor. “You like?” she asked as she handed back my digital camera so that I could check her work.

p. I was astonished. She took a fantastic shot. My body was perfectly centered in the frame. And she had somehow managed to adjust for brightness, which is normally a problem when taking pictures of my pale face on a bright day. Instead of coming out one giant bright blur, I appeared crisp and viewable. I imagined the possibilities of having such a photographic prodigy for a friend. I could take her with me on my next trip to Paris. “Do you think you could get another one of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower? This time maybe make me look a little more brooding?”

p. After following the many curves of that endless wall, she and I finally arrived at the parking lot where I would catch a bus to take me back to my hotel. As I was getting ready to ask my new friend for her mailing address, she pulled out an armful of T-shirts, postcards and books. “I know you are my friend, so let me give you a deal.” To be honest, I was hurt. We had just spent three meaningful hours together on the Great Wall of China.

p. “You like the scenery?” She had asked me only minutes before. “Yes,” I had responded in unintelligible Chinese. “They very pretty. Me think they very good to look at.”

p. How could she take our budding relationship and just pretend it had been nothing? Out of spite I refused to buy anything from her. “But I thought you were my friend,” she pleaded. I thought so, too. It was only later, when I retold this story to friends, that I realized she had never told me her name. Or perhaps I never thought to ask.

p. __James Damon is a Confusion Corner columnist. Watch out if he’s nice to you — he probably just wants your organs.__

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