We had a fascinating talk with our guide, who called himself Louis. He was born in northern Manchuria, probably around 30 years ago, speaks excellent English, and lives alone in Beijing. He has an interesting discursive style of talking, which perhaps comes from having to explain every little thing to tourists. That was useful to us, of course.
We were asking him about prices of flats in Beijing when he told us that he is getting married soon. We waited and he continued telling us about his first wife who has now paid taxes in Beijing for five years and therefore is now entitled to buy a car and a flat in Beijing. We waited. He said that he couldn’t afford to buy a flat even if he had paid taxes, and that whatever savings he had would be drained when he marries. We sympathised.
Then he told us that his mother loves Bollywood movies, and lots of people of her generation watch every Bollywood movie that they can get. He grew up watching Bollywood movies with his mother, but now he thinks all the stories are almost the same. We agreed and waited for the connection. It wasn’t long in developing. In India the hero cannot get his sister married because he does not earn enough money to pay for her dowry. It isn’t like that in China. The groom has to pay for everything. We understood and sympathized.
The Family asked Louis whether he watches any Bollywood movies now. Louis said, "Only the big ones, like 3 Idiots. It was good." In Mandarin? No, in English, with Chinese subtitles. Does Aamir Khan know of this version? I did not ask.
But Louis wanted to talk about his wedding. When his friends got married he gave everyone 100 Yuan. Now when he gets married he thinks they will each give him 120 Yuan (all presents are in cash). Then, when they have kids he will give each of them 150 Yuan, and then maybe they will give him 200 Yuan. We could see the wheels of Karma moving.
His story was new to us. We had not heard anyone from the precarious edge of the Chinese economy till now. He took us to the tombs of the Mings and the Great Wall, and he told us the usual facts about the grandeur of ancient China, and some which we had not known. But when we asked more, he gave us a very modern analysis of how many people had died in building these marvels. It is not the done thing in the circles we usually meet to talk about politics directly, so we had no opportunity to ask him whether he sees any parallel with the new marvels that China is building.
Having seen a few recent Chinese movies on flights and on Youko, it seems that some of the melodrama that Bollywood movies are famous for have also found their way into Chinese cinema. Or perhaps such melodrama is an ancient constant in all cultures. China must be as diverse as India. To understand the country better, we have to meet more people like Louis and talk to them. Unfortunately, it is not easy, since English is not commonly spoken.