These past couple of weeks, I have delved into new reading materials (primarily ethnographic fieldwork manuals), one being Chuan-Kang Shih’s “Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life.” I am trying to finish these books before February, which is when I plan to travel to Lugu Lake, my fieldwork site, for the first time. These books are thick and dense. After spending one afternoon reading Shih’s book, I decided to give my mind a break and walk around Green Lake. It’s a scenic, relaxing part of town with a large man-made lake where the older Kunming population often congregate.
I was expecting a quiet walk, but instead found myself in a madding crowd of mostly older Chinese taking up the entire sidewalk going about their way. I noticed many were lining along the fence, looking at something. I squeezed through to see and saw the fence lined with “seeking relationship” advertisements. I observed a few: 1) 71 year-old man looking for a partner, 2) 36 year-old man looking for a wife, 3) 29 year old woman looking for a husband, etc. From what I saw, the majority of people looking at the ads were primarily mothers, but there were some old men looking at ads too. I was pushed along and ran into some kind of event. I saw a sign that read: “茶花节《三十六计》（Tea Flower Festival “36 Plans”). The event was based off a popular “finding love” television show. I watched from the audience as a group of awkward men and women paraded the stage doing random challenges that the host organized.
All of a sudden, an older Chinese man approached me and said, “Do you speak Chinese?” I said yes and he continued: “Are you participating in this event?” I quickly responded that I was not finding a date and was just going on a walk. He was intrigued that I spoke the language and continued our conversation. We talked about studying abroad. He mentioned how the Chinese education system is not as good as it was before and how many of “us” Chinese want to send their kids/grandkids abroad to study. I started pulling in a crowd of curious Chinese who noticed a foreigner speaking Mandarin. I decided it’s my time to go and politely excused myself.
I continued walking through the busy crowd, hoping to find a new place to read. Suddenly, another older man taps me on the shoulder and says: “Mind if I walk with you? I noticed you were speaking Mandarin back there.” I consented and we started a new conversation. He was short, wore large-rimmed sunglasses, and looked about 60 years-old. I asked what he did in Kunming. He first wanted me to guess–I guessed “teacher.” He said that was close and then gave me a round-about answer of what he does. In the end, I didn’t fully understand his job. He began to rub me the wrong way. He then said: “This is the first time I’ve ever talked to a foreigner. Even better, you’re a beauty (meinv).” That made me feel even more uncomfortable. I laughed it off and said I was happy to be the first foreigner he had ever talked to.
At one point on the walk, we passed a group of policemen. He suddenly got really close to me and whispered: “What do you think of them?” I glanced at the policemen and replied: “They are really helpful. Whenever I need help or get lost, I look for a policeman.” He nodded and replied: “You know, if you need any help you can call me too. I want to become friends with you.” I nod and look up at the spinning fans that hung above the sidewalk. I didn’t want to respond. He then continued, “I think you have mistaken what I just said as a joke. If you have any problems, you can always give me a call. Let’s be friends. Let’s exchange numbers.” This is when my language abilities got in the way: How do I politely refuse in Mandarin?
With a lack of better vocabulary, I bluntly said, “We just met. I would rather not give you my number.” We finally reached one of the entrance gates to Green Lake where I can leave. He seemed distraught and offended that I didn’t want to give him my number. “Why? Is it my age? My job? Why don’t you want to be connected? I feel like our meeting is auspicious. It means something to me.” He then confessed that he was a police officer. Why didn’t he say that in the first place? I was still skeptical of his occupation. I tried to explain my reasoning for not giving him my number as politely as possible, but he wouldn’t stop. This was the first time I had ever met someone so involved in getting my information. In the end, he conceded, but as a last resort, he offered me his phone number. I grudgingly took it. We shook hands as a farewell…He grasped on a little too long and when we let go, he stroked his pointer finger along my palm. I quickly said goodbye and went on my way.
I finally escaped. I made it to the Confucius Temple Park and continued reading my research materials. What an uncomfortable encounter!