“Don’t take a taxi.” the girl at the hostel said. “They can tell you’re not from around here.”
“But I’m Chinese too,” I said.
“But you’re not from here. Your skin, the way you dress, the way you walk. And then you open your mouth and you’re definitely not from here.”
Then she said, “If you really want to take a taxi, try to haggle. They’re going to charge you ¥60. It should only be ¥30 to the docks. ”
I told the taxi driver this, but he just laughed and dropped me off at the subway. He was still laughing when he drove off.
The subway station had six different entrances radiating in six different directions from an outdoor arena. Subway maps and wooden benches were placed discreetly among manicured shrubbery. A young woman sat on one of the benches swiping through her phone in the slow, bored manner we all use when we are waiting for someone. Where my skin and features –typical of the Jiangzhe coast my family was from– were too pale and soft in Chongqing, her caramel skin and chiseled cheekbones were too dark and dramatic. Even I could tell she was not from here either. She later said she was from somewhere in Xinjiang but would not be more specific. Those from China’s “Wild West” face a lot of prejudice in the cities.
My new friend’s name was Wei. When Wei smiled, the faintest of wrinkles appeared at the corners of her eyes. She wore a t-shirt and skinny jeans and was barely taller than me even in her three-inch platforms. Something in the frantic way I asked for directions must have reminded her of when she was new in this city so many years ago. She started to explain the subway lines. Then she took a long look at me and said, “I’ll tell my boyfriend I’m going to be late.”
I followed Wei two blocks away to another station where she showed me how to buy a ticket. As we glided on the monorail past skyscrapers glittering in the green mountains, she marked a subway map for me with a highlighter so I could find my way back. She then took some ointment out of her purse and applied it to the mosquito bites on my arms and legs. She smiled when she realized we were the same age.
“You speak Chinese very well,” she said. “People will think you’re Chinese as long as you don’t say too much.”
“Do you like Chongqing?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “My boyfriend is here. I went to college here.”
“What did you study?”
“Do you like it?”
“It pays well.”
We got off near the waterfront and Wei led me through the crowded streets to the river. A giant facade spanning two city blocks was built into a cliff wall. It mimicked a row of medieval-European-style houses that a pirate ship had somehow crashed into. The pirate ship was life-sized. The whole apparatus contained restaurants, bars, department stores, and coffeeshops. At the entrances, statues of historic figures stood next to characters from Pirates of the Caribbean. Children climbed on all of them indiscriminately. A neon Starbucks logo five stories in the air beamed over the whole scene. Underneath its light, vendors hawked fresh fruit and trinkets on the sidewalk. Kites flew in the night sky and crowds of shoppers with their screaming children pushed through the rush hour crush.
The booth at the street corner sold tickets for riverboat tours with a sign that said ¥178 per person for a large dragon boat. The accompanying picture showed a blinding contraption with three floors, huge gold dragons on the front and back, and a capacity of about 2000 people. A medium boat with only two levels was ¥135 per passenger. A small boat, capacity of 100, was ¥78. All the boats were decked with neon lights. The crowd pushed us into the street when the traffic light changed and the hawker had to yell for us to hear him.
“There’s a special discount since it’s the end of the night! Only ¥135 per person for the big dragon boat!”
“What about the small boat?” I asked.
“That’s sold out.”
“Where is the boat?” asked my new friend. He said a location a couple of blocks away.
“That’s too far to walk this late at night.”
“We’ve got a shuttle to take you there.” He pointed to an unmarked van blocking half the sidewalk. An old man holding open the door was enthusiastically waving for us to get inside. We were too far to hear what he was saying, but he seemed to be saying it very passionately.
“That’s the shuttle?”
“It’s free.” said the hawker.
“Free?” A couple holding the hands of a little boy between them pushed their way towards the van. The boy was in a tiny vest and newsboy cap and had a tiny bookbag on his shoulders. The hawker had sold them tickets for the dragon boat while he was negotiating with us. They looked like tourists from another city.
“You said ¥135 for the large boat?” asked Wei.
“Yes, it’s the last boat of the night. You won’t get a better deal anywhere else!”
“Make it ¥130 since it’s so late, and we’ll take it.”
“Alright.” He sighed.
“Do you have ¥75?” she whispered, pretending to look in her purse. I took out my wallet while the hawker selected two tickets from the fanny pack hidden under his shirt.
“Actually,” Wei spoke rapidly as more people approached the booth, “only one of us is going so here’s ¥75.” She thrust the money at him, grabbed one ticket, and steered me towards the van.
“Only one…?” I thought I heard the hawker say as the crowd closed behind us.
I jumped into the van next to the family with the little boy. Before we pulled away, my friend gave me her number to call if I got lost. I hugged her and she smiled. She told me to let her know when I got back to my hostel. She then called her boyfriend to meet her for dinner.
On the dragon boat, the passengers asked each other what we paid for our tickets. The ¥75 my friend “negotiated” for me was on the lower end of the spectrum, but there was a handful who paid ¥70. There was even a rumor someone paid only ¥60. If anyone paid full price, they were either too embarrassed to say so or they did not understand Chinese.
And it was not the last boat of the night.
After we disembarked, I approached a taxi driver standing beside his car. I told him where my hostel was.
“¥60.” he said.
I agreed because it was almost midnight and the subway was closed anyway. He seemed shocked and repeated the price again, slower. I agreed again.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”