When Sophie decided that we should take a bus to a mall somewhere on the edge of Guilin, she didn’t think her request was that big of a deal. Her past travel experience has been in American cities where we can ask for directions and understand the answers, in China with English-speaking guides, and in Spain and on Prince Edward Island with our intrepid friend Kellie, who has a great sense of direction and a fearless spirit of adventure. It is therefore not remarkable to Sophie to imagine an adult ushering her from point A to point B without incident.
I, on the other hand, possess an unparalleled genius for getting lost just about anywhere. When Sophie made her request, I was still basking in my success at mastering the bus journey to the City Center. On each trip I was on high alert, counting the stops, six altogether, and noting the landmarks: the big rock, the colored flags in the intersection, and the Niko Niko Do Plaza, our cue to start down the aisle of the top deck of the lurching bus, the ceiling so low I kept bumping my head, then down the steps to get off by the Guilin City Bookshop.
But now Sophie was ready to move on to challenges that struck me as Herculean: taking the bus to a mall somewhere an indeterminate number of stops away where I didn’t know what landmarks to watch for, to wade through acres and acres of shoes. Even if by some unimaginable miracle we found the mall, how would we ever find the shoes she’d seen there a few days before, when we’d been on an excursion with a driver and guide?
I really hate shopping, but I could see the appeal of Chinese malls for a petite Chinese-American girl who has sometimes bought too-big shoes in the U.S. just so that she can wear age-appropriate ones rather than the sparkly ones with Disney princesses that actually fit. She’s too small to fit into the smallest pants sold at her favorite stores. Dresses and tops are not so much a problem, but who wouldn’t be giddy in a city full of clothing made specifically for her figure and coloring?
So I asked a guide for directions to the mall, and they seemed pretty simple. Just take bus number one to the end of the line, he said, and there it’ll be.
The buses in Guilin cost the equivalent of 15 cents (30 cents if you want air conditioning). On bus number one, we rode and rode and rode. I couldn’t read a single street sign or business name. I couldn’t understand the periodic announcements. We just kept going, and then we got to the end of the line and there it was, the noodle shop, the theater, the ubiquitous McDonalds and KFC, and the mall.
Sophie was mesmerized by the clothes, all the clothes made for hipless and buttless women, as she put it. Or she would have been mesmerized, except that we both quickly became confused by the sizing and distracted by our gathering audience. The crowd pressing in made the browsing experience so nervewracking that Sophie kept darting in front of me like a skittering bat and I kept almost tripping over her. Later, whenever I opened the dressing room curtain so that she could look in the mirror, the crowd had grown. Heads cocked as everyone admired Sophie in each new outfit. When we left the dressing room and stopped to calculate aloud how much the shirt she wanted would cost in American dollars, the crowd stole closer, listening. We were perspiring heavily by the time we left, when the other customers drifted over to the door and watched. I pretended that we were movie stars rather than zoo animals.
Although Sophie found the shoes that had prompted the excursion, she didn’t buy them. The store didn’t have a big enough size. Later we got on bus number one and rode it back. We were almost home free when two policemen boarded and stood right in front of us, occasionally glancing our way. Or at least we thought they were policemen, since they were wearing official-looking uniforms, and my heart started to race again. Foreigners are required by law to carry their passports at all times, but as far as I know, no one ever does because the risk of having a passport stolen is greater than the risk of being asked to present one. Sophie and I avoided looking at each other. We focused on appearing casual and innocent of crime.
Then a paunchy policeman turned toward us. His uniform shirt was unbuttoned. The belly that suddenly appeared right in front of our faces made it hard to take his authority seriously.
When we compared notes later, Sophie told me she thought, That policeman is naked. “What did you think?” she asked.
“I thought, ‘whew, he’s off duty, what a relief!” I said.
“Me too!” she said. “I thought, whew!” And then, at the same time, we both said, “And then I thought, ‘ewwww!’”
We arrived at our stop and got off. I was feeling pretty triumphant, but Sophie dodged my high five, turning it into a low five, well, actually, a tiny tap on the wrist. But then the next day, when I used my first Chinese ATM and did a little dance, despite how embarrassing that had to be for a thirteen-year-old, I got another wrist tap, this time unsolicited. Not quite a high five, not even a low five, but still, a clear acknowledgement that yep, we’re figuring stuff out, and it’s really cool.