In Hong Kong, I easily obtained my Chinese visa and found the right bus. Blithely, I headed off for mainland China. But ten minutes into the bus ride, I suddenly realized that I had not changed any money. I would not arrive in Zhaoqing until after eight o'clock, and I had no reservation and no way to pay for a room.
There was only one other passenger on the bus, a girl in a floppy skirt. She carried a shopping bag with a stuffed bear poking out the top. At the border, she helped me navigate customs. Her name was Dee, and she lived in a small town not far from Zhaoqing. I told her about my problem, and she called her mother, who was playing mah jong in a hotel room with some other ladies. They took a room for this purpose once a week, and I was welcome to stay in the room after they'd finished their game.
Several hours later, I faced four Chinese ladies, none of whom spoke a word of English, across a table laden with dishes. The ladies stared at me, wide-eyed, and said many things to Dee.
"They are very worried about you," Dee translated. "China is very dangerous. They are worried that you do not speak any Chinese."
"I'm sure I'll be fine," I said, self-consciously struggling to use my chopsticks to transport food from the serving dishes to my own bowl without making a mess in the process.
"They say you must be very brave," said Dee. "People are not always friendly. Do not talk to anyone unless they speak very good English. Never talk to men. Always wear your money belt. Only sleep in expensive hotels, lock your door, and put your purse under your pillow."
"I plan to stay in youth hostels," I said.
"I do not think we have those in China," said Dee, looking worried.
"Look," I said. "I know I must seem naïve to you. But I live in Chicago, so."
The four ladies stared at me. One of them wore a T-shirt that said I'm too sexy for my 26!!!!
"They do not think you understand about China," said Dee. And then she added, "Would you like a fork?"
Dee was a student at a university in England. She lived there with her boyfriend, and the two of them were visiting home over the break.
"Do you think you'll return to China when you graduate?" I asked.
"Oh, no!" said Dee. "I very much want to stay in England. I am worried about finding a job."
Then, she clarified, "That is, perhaps I will come back to China. It would be good to work for my country."
The next morning, Dee and her mother put me on a bus for Zhaoqing. When the bus pulled into the station there, all the signs were in Chinese characters, and no one spoke English. I had no idea where I was. I didn't know what to do next.