In Kaifeng, one of the 7 ancient cities located in Henan Province, our very sketchy hotel offered free breakfast. Much to our disappointment breakfast consisted of a basket of cold, hardening mantou (steamed bread), over boiled eggs and a salad bar with tiny scraps of pickled vegetables. I might have been able to choke down the mantou (I do love the stuff) but they didn’t even offer tea to wash it down. We took one bite and took off.
We decided to hit the streets to find something for breakfast but we didn’t get far. As we approached the entrance of the hotel a friendly voice greeted us. “Hello! Where are you from?” Being a foreigner you get accosted by all sorts of people trying to sell you something and inwardly I groaned. It wasn’t even 9 am, way too early for this shit.
Turns out the man that stopped us was named Jason. Code name Golden Phoenix. He immediately whips out a journal type book and starts reading off entries people wrote about his service. “I have taken 615 foreigners on my rickshaw. I’m Jason the rickshaw driver,” he said proudly.
He showed us entry after entry (and read them aloud though clearly he had memorized them) and talked about how great his service was. Unfortunately he didn’t even describe his service and I spent the first few minutes totally confused as we tried to needle our way out of there and get something to eat.
Eventually, I figured out he was a tour guide (his bicycle rickshaw was behind us) and he wanted to show us the sights of Kaifeng. We asked how much and he said 200 yuan ($30) for the entire day. He had a pass to all the sites and so we would only pay for our own tickets. (He did mention that the German family from the day before invited him to eat lunch with them. Okay Jason, we got the hint.)
To be honest we didn’t have much planned for Kaifeng as we never even heard of the place until a few days prior when we were planning our next stop. We chose it because a) it was a short train ride and b) it had some interesting sounding sites. Soon Jason’s silver tongue worked its magic and we found ourselves climbing into the rickshaw for a day of sightseeing with the Golden Phoenix.
Turns out the day was great, and Kaifeng way more interesting then I ever thought due to Jason. We went to look at daily life of Kaifeng people and ended up at this cool park we might not have seen otherwise in which people were twirling dragon kites, and snapping giant whips (all for exercise.) Jason even got involved a few times such as when he found a bunch of Christians singing hymns (he’s a proud Christian), and when we found a calligraphist practicing on the ground with mud water.
He also explained a lot of things to us we had been wondering about, such as the meaning of different statues in Buddhists temples. He also taught us the proper way to walk over a threshold in a temple (left foot first for the men, right for women.)
Jason’s favorite sight, the oldest surviving monument In Kaifeng, is the Iron Pagoda built in 1094. It’s not actually made out of iron, rather glazed bricks, but it looks like iron from afar. Kaifeng has a history of major floods several times in the past. The only reason the pagoda survived is because it was originally built on the top of a hill. Currently the land around it is flat.
One of the nicest aspects of the Iron Pagoda is the park it is in. There are of course a number of temples, but also just nice sitting areas. Senior citizens get in free, and many locals were just relaxing by the water. We also sat down and soon, with Jason translating, we found we had many new friends.
All the Chinese people we speak to are mostly young, or middle aged. We don’t get to talk to the elderly often because of the language barrier. And honestly, we weren’t sure what they thought of America as in the past we were once foreign devils. But this old, wrinkled lady started reciting some English words she knew (and sang the whole alphabet song) and people were interested in what we thought of China and Kaifeng.
One old man, who would fit into any retirement home in Florida, whipped out his fan so it covered his face and whispered Jason a question.
“He wants to know if you two are a couple.”
“Yes,” we said.
The old mad whipped the fan to his face again.
“Do you have any children?”
“No,” we said.
One older man came up to us and asked how old Nixon was.
“He’s dead,” we had to inform him. That didn’t stop him from singing the praises of Nixon (who was the first U.S. President to open up relations between China and the US) and all he did for the two country. At one point he was saying something about a long handshake reaching across the world. We had to break it to him gently that in America many people only remembered Nixon for his corruption. But to this guy, it didn’t matter.
The day ended up great and we were happy to spend the day with Jason as our guide. We even tipped him assuming that since he deals mostly with foreigners he probably gets it often (tipping is uncommon and oftentimes unwelcomed in China. Jason didn’t mind though.) We even took a picture and signed his book singing his praises that will now be brought out for the next foreigners to see.
What I liked most about Jason was his way of thinking. He just liked speaking English and so taught it to himself while in the army. He worked at a factory, but it closed and he found himself without a job. Instead of finding more factory work he decided to buy a rickshaw to peddle people around. After doing that for awhile he decided to start peddling foreigners to practice his English and soon Jason the Rickshaw Driver was born.
Even though he isn’t living a grand luxurious life he still is doing something he loves (speaking English and meeting new people) and he did it all by himself. In China, as in the west, people often fall in the traps of doing what they have been told. Go to school, graduate college, get married, get a job, work at a big company, retire in your 60’s and take care of the grandkids. But Jason kind of broke out of that path and now he spends his days peddling around, writing calligraphy and talking to new people all while earning a little cash (and eating a free lunch).
Thanks for the great day Jason!