I should probably ask. But then he’ll smile. He’ll talk to me in Mandarin. I won’t understand and the moment will be ruined. They’ll pose for me. It won’t be candid. And I imagine myself a photojournalist—at least on this trip. I should ask. But at least in China, at least in the Forbidden City, I want to capture a moment. I’ll just, kind of, put the camera off to the side, and just, kind of, snap.
The little boy points at me. I’m caught. I smile. There’s no going back now.
The boy touches my camera. I hand it to him. He clicks and takes a picture of my shoes. He laughs. He points it at my face and clicks again. The boy’s hair is so shiny, I stop myself from touching it.
The man mimes looking at the camera. I take the camera from the boy and click the button to show them the pictures I’ve taken. I show the Summer Palace and a funny picture of me on a bicycle navigating the streets of Beijing. I show the man the photograph of him. He touches the screen. He grins, his teeth yellowed and crooked. I wonder if I should offer to pay him. I am an exploitative piece of shit, I think. I remain silent: My tourist Mandarin escapes me.
He mimes writing and points to my backpack. I give him my journal and a pen. He writes in characters I don’t understand. He nods. I nod. He smiles. I smile. He points to the journal.
I have no idea what the characters mean. I wave and back away. I will never take another candid, I say to myself. He waves. I wave. And again. We smile, we nod, we wave. I am everything I hate, I think.
Later, at the hostel, I ask the host to translate. It’s an address. She shows me where it is on the map—not too far from the Forbidden City.
I wonder if he goes to the Forbidden City to think. I wonder if he takes his son to see all the tremendous sites of his country. I wonder if he feels the magic of the Forbidden City as I did. Yet still, I also wonder if he noticed the red paint drips on the cobblestone the way I did. I ache with regret that I didn’t engage in conversation. All I have is the photo.
When I get home, I print the photograph and send it to him. I write in simplified Mandarin, thank you.