If my guide had spoken no English, rather than some, he might have been easier to understand. But this was shoestring tourism, and I was lucky to have a guide at all.
He was a very slight young man, with glasses so big they made him look top-heavy; "bookish" one might have said. I tried to ask him questions as we began our long drive through the city of Xian, and out to the countryside to the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, and he answered me the best he could. He even used English words. But for the most part they were answers to other questions than I had asked.
Eventually, however, I had a question I really needed an answer to.
"Washroom?" I asked in my slowest and most expressive voice. Some creative sign language didn't hurt. They pulled over near some tourist haunt and the guide pointed.
"There. Genital-man there."
I laughed at his mispronunciation of "gentlemen" as I got out of the car. But as I approached the entrance, I realized he hadn't misprounced it. He'd read it.
GENITALMEN, in bold letters next to the door. I expected it to be directly opposite the sign saying LADDIES. Alas, no. They got it right for the women.
I hear that such aberrations of English were common then—so common, in fact, that the Chinese government, to prepare for the Olympics, created a special program to seek, identify, and correct the written absurdities affectionately dubbed, "Chinglish"—but this had been my first experience.
We arrived at the tombs, a sprawling expanse of grassy hills with a museum entrance set in the middle. I was so amused at the earlier sign that I wasn't listening very well to my guide, so occupied was I in trying to find more humourous examples. Unfortunately, the signs at the Xian tombs were well edited. What I did notice, as I entered the main tomb, was the sign which read, "NO PHOTOS." Lining the raised platform, from which the famous terracotta statues stretched in endless succession, was an equally impressive number of camera-wielding Chinese tourists snapping pictures. The guards at each entrance stood their posts, but no one seemed in the least bit concerned. Except me. My paranoia about China had me thinking that perhaps there was a double standard, that what was overlooked for locals would spell trouble for me. I tried to blend in, take photos discreetly, quickly, sometimes not even looking through the viewer, pretending to be ignorant of the sign. I was the only one that cared what I was doing.
The statues themselves were in parallel rows stretching back across an expanse larger than a football field. Within each row, the life-sized soldiers stood four across. Sometimes a team of horses pulled a terracotta cart. Some of the soldiers had beards, some moustaches, some had ponytails doubled over into a pseudo-bun, some had short hair parted in the middle; some had hands in fists that once held spears, some had open palms. In every case something about each warrior was unique; they were ancient, fierce—and, dare I say, cooler—predecessors of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Beyond the sheer number of statues and the vastness of the tomb complex, the individuality of the statues was itself a wonder.
"So many genitalmen," I said to my guide.
"Yes, yes," he said, nodding with a wide smile.
In the gift area which concluded the tour, an elderly man sat on a bench flanked with coffee table books about the discovery of the tombs. The laminated sign nearby said that the tombs were first discovered by the man seated there, and that he would autograph books for a small fee. Like the terracotta warriors, this man was on display.
"Are you sure it was this genitalman?" It seemed to me they could have paraded anybody around there. Who would have known?
The guide read the sign in Chinese which said so, and nodded to me again.
"Yes, this genitalman."