In 1997 I was twenty years old and had never traveled anywhere where Spanish was not the official language. For reasons that are opaque to me now, I decided to visit China that summer. Most of the trip is unrecoverable at this point, two months full of strange interactions without the benefit of a common language, wherein I tried to interpret inscrutable gestures and failed consistently. These episodes have melted together and, in many cases, taken on the color and shape of an extended hallucination. I recall learning how to ask for steamed dumplings, how to say hello and thank you and how to order a brand of bottled water called WAHAHA, which I enjoyed saying almost as much as my Chinese hosts enjoyed hearing me say it. I had moments of small beauty with kind strangers, usually involving a camera or a dozen bottles of beer, and ending with an embrace. It was an optimistic time for China: Hong Kong was to rejoin the Motherland at the end of July, and the economy was booming. Everywhere I went there were internal tourists, the new urban middle-class, in tour groups organized by color: red, bright orange, green. There were packs of them at every temple, park, or archeological attraction, usually led by a young woman with a megaphone and a brightly-colored flag. They wore matching t-shirts and hats, spoke loudly into their cell phones, smoked incessantly, and took photographs of everything. I don’t know exactly what I expected to see in China, but this was not it. I was aware enough to be simultaneously annoyed by the tourists and a little ashamed of my resentment. Their presence did, after all, represent a step forward of sorts, and what right did I have to judge the Chinese finally having the opportunity to see their own country?
In two months though, it did begin to grate on me. I chalk it up to my youth and inexperience, my un-worldliness: since then I’ve come across it again, that perverse feeling of ownership one has a tourist, that you somehow deserve the experience (whatever it may be, whatever the country) more than other people; that somehow, if you were only more alone, you would be immersed and something remarkable, authentic and revelatory would happen, and it would be yours. It’s a nearly inescapable emotion, I’ve found, and that summer, I was that kind of tourist: jealous, lonely, broke, mostly unhappy and unimpressed, wanting to see something, anything that could justify traveling in such a foreign and generally alienating place.
This all came to head when my friend and I visited Mt. Emei, in central China, a place of real beauty, a mountain surrounded by rivers and waterfalls, with ancient pagodas sunken among flowering trees in the rising foothills. The guidebook told of the long, meditative quality of the trail, rising to the crest of the mountain over the course of a day, and it was this more than anything that I was looking forward to. If the people were impenetrable, I felt, I could at the very least count on nature to let me in. Though there are few pristine places left in China, Emei promised to be one. Birds and trees and monkeys, the guidebook read. I was expecting nothing less than transcendental beauty.
And in many ways this is what I got. The drought affecting the country that summer had dried up the streams and waterfalls, but still, it was all there: the thick forest, the path meandering from pagoda to pagoda, wending its way through the hills to the base of the mountain. I was really enjoying myself, until I encountered an antique woman, her back bent dramatically, offering monkey food. She sold it in little plastic packets, and this too the guidebook had mentioned. I politely refused, but the woman was persistent. She shoved a few packets at me, said the word maigwa (foreigner, literally “big nose”) and wouldn’t take no for an answer. My friend and I kept walking, and amazingly, she followed us. The calm was shattered and I can’t say exactly how or why, but it became, there on the rising and falling trail, a race of sorts: two twenty year olds walking briskly away from an elderly woman, who simply wanted to extract a few yuan from us. She meant no harm. She simply didn’t believe that we wouldn’t buy what she was selling.
After about twenty minutes of walking, the trail arrived to the monkey area. Before me lay the end of all my placid hopes for Emei: dozens of Chinese tourists in colored t-shirts, each, it seemed, with a handful of monkey food. There may even have been megaphones in use, I can’t say for certain. Tourists took photographs and the monkeys posed obligingly, picking food lazily from human palms, nearly smiling in that way that primates have. Plastic wrappers littered the path. Cameras flashed in the forest. It was horrifying.
What can I say about these monkeys? Simply this: you’ve never seen monkeys more smug and satisfied. They scarcely moved at all from the sides of the trail. There wasn’t a hunter or a gatherer among them. They sat and were fed and ate with the indolent decadence of royalty. They were overgrown and fat. There were meals worth of crumbs in the hair on their chests and stomachs. They scratched themselves, received their food, and seemed entirely uninterested by the hubbub around them.
I did what I did next out of some misplaced desire to rebel against all of this. I’m not an environmentalist except in the vague sense that everyone is: I separate my trash most of the time. Once a year or so, I briefly consider becoming a vegetarian. And yet, when confronted with this scene—this noisy and corrupted anti-Eden—I decided I had to do something. I felt a clarity of mission in that moment that I have rarely had since. I stormed down the path, earnestly picking up the discarded plastic wrappers that were strewn along the trail.
Here my troubles began: something must have stirred in one of these monkeys, something angry. I had stolen his food; there must have been a hint of it in the air. I lumbered on down the path, and found a monkey blocking my path: angry, clumsy, jealous. A bit like me, this monkey. He was the size of a two-year old, fat, but surprisingly mobile. We stared each other down for a moment, a duel, and then he charged at me. It happened so quickly: in an instant he was upon me, had clung to my shorts, climbed up to my chest, turned down so that his ass was nearly in my face, his tail waving before my eyes. The monkey’s hand searched my pocket, pulling out the plastic packets and spilling them on the ground. In the next moment I had pushed the beast off me. I got a long thin scratch along my forearm in return. I don’t know if it was hate that I saw in his eyes, but I do know he hissed and he lunged and, when he did, I met him in the air with the swing of a closed fist. I had punched a monkey.
The rest of it is a blur and has become more and more blurred in each subsequent re-telling. For example, I don’t recall if the monkey cried out in pain, or if I struck him cleanly on the chin—though both details seem unlikely. I do remember the monkey scampering off down the path, utterly defeated, and whatever pride of victory I might have briefly allowed myself to feel dissipating almost instantly. The people turned to see what kind of scoundrel would come to a national park and engage the wildlife in a little mano a mano. My face went flush. My heart was pounding. They were disgusted by me. Me! I thought, dismayed. I am that kind of scoundrel!
I was bleeding, but deserving of no pity. I could tell that most of the Chinese thought I’d gotten off easy. The old woman with the monkey food shook her head bitterly. There was chatter all around me, none of it sounded generous, and I had nothing to say for myself. I wondered, despondent, what tropical diseases I had just contracted from my sparring partner. Something bad, I was sure; something terrifying. I followed the path, past the feeding monkeys, felt the eyes of the entire pack on me. They never stopped eating. I was beneath them. A few yards on, I came upon another old woman, this one bent over the dirt path with a broom and a basket. She swept the path clean of leaves and plastic wrappers and all matter of refuse, working her way efficiently toward the crowds, so focused on her work she didn’t even acknowledge my feeble and pleading hello.