Actually, it was a nun, and I was arguing with her handlers. It was an irate customer who was yelling directly at the nun. (It looked like the customer got some money back in the end, but I couldn’t tell for sure — she’s in the orange jacket, near the centre of the photo.)Usually my conversations with Buddhists and Daoists are mostly me asking questions. I try to nail down what they actually think, and get a sense of how their beliefs and practices function in their lives. Because I want to understand them; I want to understand the worldviews we encounter on their own terms. (The “high” Buddhism and Daoism we studied in school seems to have precious little to do with the Buddhism and Daoism we regularly encounter at street level in China.) Since there are lots of little god shops around, when I have a few extra minutes I stop in to chat. It’s never been confrontational. Until the other day.
My almost 5-year-old daughter and I have just finished lunch in the market. We’re going to buy trees to plant in the public grass/dirt area outside our first-floor apartment’s windows. I have a bag of tomato and húlu (葫芦) seedlings in one hand and my daughter’s hand in the other.
There’s a crowd around something on the sidewalk. Actually most of the street and sidewalk is basically one big crowd, but Something is Happening up ahead. I peer down into the circle of heads (6’4″ lǎowài can do this in China) to discover a Buddhist nun doing what’s called 算命, where they tell your fortune and then, for a fee, perform rituals to help you avoid the bad things headed your way. (Apparently, so my friends tell me, you pay even more if your future predictions are good.) Judging by the surrounding interest, this seems like a minor Big Deal, so I pull out my phone and start taking pictures. Wish I’d taken video; it’d be fun to have this exchange recorded:
“No! No! You can’t take pictures!”
(A handler comes toward me waving her hands.)
(I wish I’d kept taking pictures.)
“You can’t take pictures of this. It’s bad for your ___.”
(Wish I could remember the exact term she used, but the idea is that me taking pictures of this nun in action would negatively affect my life/fate/etc.)
“No problem! I don’t believe in this superstition.”
(I’m feeling a little ornery. I don’t know why. Maybe being born on the Protestant side of the Reformation means I have a low tolerance for people selling indulgences. Or maybe (yes, actually) it’s because my hands are full, I’m with my daughter, and I’m in increasing need of a public restroom. At least I didn’t use the Mao Era term “feudal superstition” 封建迷信。)
“You can’t take pictures! This is a problem of belief.”
“Right, I don’t believe this. But what are you afraid of? This is a public–“
“We don’t have the same belief. In your country you all–“
(This is common point of worldview disconnect. In China, many people consider your heritage a perfectly valid reason for believing something; in the West, it’s usually the opposite — telling someone they only believe something because of their heritage is a way of saying that person has no good reasons to believe what they claim. Because — speaking very generally — when a North American says they “believe in X”, they usually mean they “think X is true”, but a Chinese using the same phrase isn’t necessarily making a truth claim. Personal convictions about the true nature of Life, the Universe and Everything (and ‘staying true to yourself’) just aren’t as high a value in China, compared with, say, getting along and getting by. And when personal convictions do matter to a Chinese, it can come off as really selfish. Anyway, it sometimes rubs my fur the wrong way when people assume that I think what I think for (what I think is) no good reason.)
“This has nothing to do with my country. Why can’t I take pictures? What are you afraid of?”
(I’m in a hurry, I suspect this whole thing is a scam, and I’m curious what objections they’ll raise since they couldn’t make me fear for my fate. But now the argument that’s been simultaneously happening on the opposite side of the crowd erupts into yelling and accusations of cheating people out of their money. The crowd starts thinning out, maybe feeling a little awkward between me/my camera on one side and the irate customer on the other. If you look closely at the above photos, to the the fortune-teller’s right you’ll see three handlers wearing hats facing away — they’re dealing with the angry woman, whose face can be seen in all the three crowd shots.)