“There are pickpockets here. Don’t lose your passport or your green card. If you lose your passport, then you will get deported back to China,” started my tour guide in Chinese.
I suppose I didn’t have much to worry about. I could speak fluent English, so it probably wouldn’t be that hard for me to explain my situation at the US embassy. I probably wouldn’t be hard to convince people I was American even without any sort of identification. By heart, I could recall my name, address, and social security number, along with other fun facts like the second president of the United States, the names of all of the Kardashians, and the long-term destabilizing effects of US occupation in Iraq. I wonder if I could say the same about my parents.
“Keep your belongings in front of you. Don’t talk to gypsies. They come in groups and will pickpocket you. Don’t let people put bracelets on you. They will say it’s free but it is not free. If the police ask for your ID, do not give them your ID…” he continued.
I wonder if all tour groups in Europe get the same lecture when they entered Italy, or whether it was just with mine because it had been composed entirely of Chinese speakers. I wonder if my identity as a Chinese tourist on top of my identity as a tourist would make me a bigger target for scams and pickpockets. I suppose there are elements in Chinese culture encouraging passive thinking. My parents had always taught me to be 随和 (translated: going with the flow). I also suppose in Chinese culture, there did seem to be a greater emphasis on cash transactions, which would make stealing wallets that much more lucrative.
“You see those people right there?” He pointed to a group of souvenir merchants. “They will try to put a bracelet on you. Do not let them put a bracelet on you.”
I was quite taken aback. The group my tour guide pointed to was entirely black, and he didn’t even make an attempt to be politically correct. I read that he served most of his life in the French army during the Algerian War for Independence (on the colonizer’s side). They had a long string of untied bracelets on their arm. In fact, all of the souvenir merchants seemed to be minorities. Most of them seemed to have South Asian descent. I wondered if that mattered to my tour guide. He was, obviously, racially profiling, which is definitely not a good thing. But I wonder if such an instinct had been conditioned through decades of experience in the tourism industry. Does his experience with tourism while being Chinese make him more sensitive towards potential threats?
When we had arrived at our first destination, he repeated the same thing he said over the past 40 minutes again. He pointed at another group of merchants. “Don’t let them put a bracelet on you. It’s going to cost you 50 euros, and when they get it on your wrist, I guarantee the police won’t help you. Even I won’t be able to help you.”
I stepped out the bus and followed my tour guide until he stopped. The street merchants along these tour point seemed to be divided by race. There were the merchants who seemed to have South Asian descent, who sold primarily water bottles and selfie sticks. Then, there were the black merchants, who sold mostly bracelets and some small metallic souvenirs. They seem to only communicate within their ethnic groups, at least from what I have observed. They would occasionally coalesce into groups for some banter, sharply split by ethnic identity. I wonder how they felt about each other. I cannot imagine they would share profits.
I remember hearing that class problems in the United States were disguised as race problems since there existed many divisions of class by race. I heard that Europe was different, but from my observations, it didn’t seem so. Those jobs that exclusively catered towards the tourism industry seem to be composed entirely of minorities (e.g. the Chinese workers in the watch stores, the South Asian and black merchants near tourist attractions). For as a western society categorized as the paradigm of liberal values in the world, it seems as though the same problems with race and class still exist. So much for escaping the colonial narratives that plague the formerly colonized world.
“Nee How Ma. Bracelet. Here. Free.” A man extended his hand holding a blue bracelet.
“No thanks.” I quickly retracted my hand. “Don’t speak to me in Chinese,” I curtly replied.
“Why are you so angry?” He laughed. “Here, have a bracelet.”
I turned around. I thought about starting an argument. I don’t appreciate individuals attempting to speak Chinese with me when they have had no background or education in the language. I had grievances worth addressing, but I wondered if it would actually change his behavior. Would I merely exist as an exception in his mind? One Asian tourist among hundreds of thousands of Asian tourists who seemed to interpret his pathetic attempt of speaking Chinese to sell a bracelet as possibly offensive. I suppose, in my perspective, I would be communicating my sentiments. But, to him, would I just be a random Asian tourist who seemed angrier than the rest?
Chinese, to me, represented much more than a series of words. It carries subtlety and connotation, not to mention being interlaced throughout my upbringing and childhood. My parents and grandparents spoke Chinese to me growing up. When I was little, I received potty training in Chinese. When I got older, I was yelled at countless times about my grades and my lifestyle habits in Chinese. And now, I have adult conversations with my parents in Chinese. It represents, to me, much more than just a series of words and phrases. To the bracelet merchant, however, Chinese is merely a few guttural sounds uttered from the mouth in an attempt to artificially create demand.
I decided against starting an argument with the bracelet merchant. My parents, who had not seen the more assertive aspect of my personality that I had developed in college, were standing beside me. They clearly didn’t want any sort of confrontation, and I felt as if I didn’t have the right to drag them along a conflict they didn’t want to have. I would just be creating a burden to an otherwise pleasant vacation. He wasn’t the first non-Chinese person to try to speak to me in a language he had ever attempted to seriously learn, and he certainly won’t be the last either. So it goes.
I internally sighed, like I always do, and turned around.
This piece was written in my hotel room in Verona.