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3 Girl Guides, China-Style

Grandmother and child.

Story & photos by Effin Older

It was my first trip to China, a 12-day guided tour that included Beijing, Shanghai, The Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, and, to my surprise, eye-opening stories from the lives of our three Chinese guides—Abby, Stephanie and Cindy.

Besides being experts in China, past and present, they regaled us with personal details that I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten which emperor ruled which dynasty and how many hundreds of concubines he had.


Terracotta warriors

Here’s the girl-guide stories, beginning with Abby:

“You can ask anything, and photograph anyone and anything,” she says. That’s a relief. I was worried I’d innocently take a forbidden photo and end up who knows where. She quickly adds we should get used to being pushed. “It’s not that people are rude; it’s that there are so many people. And, there are no driving rules, so be careful.”

No kidding. Intersections were a terrifying tangle of cars, bicycles, scooters and buses, all racing in random directions and no one slowing down. Definitely life-threatening. There are 8 million cars in Beijing, and Abby doesn’t own one of them. So, she takes BMW—bus, metro, walk. Sounds much safer to me.


Shanghai Ladies with cell phones on the Bund in Shanghai.

“I’m sure you’re all curious about the Emperor’s concubines,” Abby says. “Here’s the qualifications: She must be a virgin between 13 and 17; no stinky breath or underarms; strong body (girls were stripped naked to inspect their shoulders, arms, backs and legs); and skilled in chess and massage, painting and calligraphy. Some emperors had thousands of concubines, and that’s before Viagra. Any volunteers?”

Abby grew up poor. Her family used a shared bathroom in the community courtyard; she knew all her neighbors. Today, she lives in a condo, and, after fifteen years, she’s never spoken to her neighbors. “Changing times,” she says ruefully.


On the Great Wall

Abby paid a million yuan ($143,000) for her condo; it’s now worth four. She lives there with her husband, son, and parents. The one-child policy is no more, but, even so, Abby wouldn’t have two. “If I had another son, I’d be broke. Parents have to buy a condo for their sons when they marry. I can’t afford two!”

I perk up when Abby tells us the secret to not going gray: “Eat black sesame seeds!” Later that day, as we watch elderly folks exercise in a park, she says, “The men all dye their hair.” But what about black sesame seeds? I don’t point out the contradiction.

In Tiananmen Square, under a giant picture of Mao, Abby acknowledges that, yes, 3,000 students were massacred thirty years ago. “It was for the good of China. It wasn’t possible to have two competing governments,” she says without batting an eye.


Newlyweds by the Grand Canal in Suzhou

I’m in China. I don’t bat an eye either. I also keep my mouth shut when she describes the birth of her son. “After the birth, I didn’t wash my body, my hair, or brush my teeth for thirty days. I used a dry cloth to wipe my hands and feet.” Why? “To prevent arthritis.” She does a little dance. “See? It worked.”

I ask our second guide, Cindy, about not washing after giving birth. “What! I took a shower immediately.” She adds, “And I don’t have arthritis.”

Cindy was born during the Cultural Revolution and went to the Tiananmen Square demonstration as a student. So, for years, no foreign travel for her. “As an unmarried woman, I was ‘too dangerous,’” she explains. “Mao brainwashed us.” Once married, she could finally travel; now Cindy regularly leads groups of Chinese tourists to Europe and North America.

She loves her job, but, as an “office girl,” she’ll have to retire at 55; female laborers retire at 50, men at 65. No choice. “Even so, women have climbed from lowest class to 2nd class. And at home, women are in charge. We say, ‘Happy wife; happy life.’ Our husbands agree.”

Cindy has one daughter. “My mom took over raising her at four months so I could travel for my job. She wants me to keep pace with the times, but I don’t want the 9-9-6 lifestyle of young people today—work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. Not good.”

Like Abby and Cindy, our third guide, Stephanie, has just one child, a son. Does she want another? “No! Too much homework!” Every night, she helps her son with his homework, which they usually finish around 11 p.m., after being in school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“I have to sign my name on the homework. If there’s a mistake, I’m ridiculed by the teacher and other parents. My husband never helps. I’m Buddha mom; he’s Disney dad—no punishment, just fun.” Pause. “My son doesn’t like me.” Longer pause. “I don’t like him either. He’s twelve, and his grandmother still feeds him with a spoon. He’s like a little emperor.”

Stephanie and Abby both have young sons. Will they be desirable bachelors when the time comes? Stephanie defines desirable: They must have all the five Cs— car, cash, credit card, condo and career.

I suspect their mothers will ensure they have all five. Especially Stephanie’s little emperor.


Effin Older is an author, writer, photographer, editor, videographer and app-creator.
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