ANHUI, China – The village of Hongcun is built in the shape of a water buffalo. The tour guide led us through winding streets, reminding us that it was easy to get lost in the corridors that formed the cow’s intestines. I wandered ahead to talk to the artist sitting on his stoop painting the rooftops. In between brushstrokes he and his friends told me to go to Yunnan. I hung back to watch the tourist lazily holding his camera instead of pointing it at the swans in the pond, deciding whether I could photograph his bored expression unnoticed.
The guide waved me back to the group. When he led us into a temple, I slipped out a back door.
On the other side of the wall, narrow paths led to houses and small shops selling playing cards, cold drinks, Mao’s red book. I stopped at a table with three bamboo waterwheels. The man carving another at a bench farther from the road came over and showed me how to turn the level so the twisting wheel would touch off the tiny hammers. He told me he spent three days carving each one. I didn’t know how to transport one of these to Hong Kong without breaking it. He took me inside his house to offer tea and show me his other pieces. The most elaborate had ladders and gazebos. Spread over the table, they suggested a miniature amusement park.
Mine made it through the flight to Beijing, but only that far, since I accidentally left the contraption, hidden in the bag he gave me to protect it, at the hotel. Was his price of 70 yuan, just over 10 U.S. dollars, a fair cost for three days work? The lesson that hits me at every turn in China returns: I really don’t know. Instead, glimpses from getting lost in bovine entrail-avenues, or in what was taught about equitable wages, collect into impressions that take the place of understanding.
Chelsea L. Shover ’11, a Crimson news writer, is a literature concentrator in Cabot House.