Do you want to go anywhere? Kelvin asked me, holding open Monte Carlos glass doors. It was after dinner and Kelvin, a high school senior and my elder brother by five years, was responsible of taking me home.
Not really, I said. Mom will have a fit if you drag me around Guangzhou at night.
We walked down the stairs towards the road outside. Many restaurants in Guangzhou, China, are located on the second floor. Customers ascend a flight of stairs to reach the entrance. There were two groups standing by the stair entrance: the Hunan restaurant, Hu Bei and Monte Carlo.
On one side stood the Monte Carlo staff, a girl with grey blazers atop a pristine white collared blouse and a black apron. She beamed when she saw Kelvin holding our leftover food in a Monte Carlo plastic bag. Xia ci guan ying, please come back again, she said in Mandarin.
Kelvin peered out and scanned for a taxi. Several figures, the homeless or beggars, crouched by the roadside. Lets stay here for a while. Theres no use standing there choking on dust and exhaust fumes when therere no taxis. He nodded at the Monte Carlo girl, smiled awkwardly at the Hu Bei waitresses and backed away into a corner.
kay, I said. Kelvin reached over and patted my head, thoroughly scuffing up my hair. I scowled and ducked away. Kelvin chuckled, and leaned back against the wall, a smile lingering on his lips. I glared and turned away.
The Hu Bei restaurant girls wore long red qi paos, traditional Chinese dresses, with short sleeves and gold flower motifs embroidered on the bodice. The supervisor, a notepad in one hand and black headphones in her ears, barked short orders into the microphone attached to the headphones. The high collar hugged her slim throat.
A couple, a young man in a shirt and tie and a girl in a short white dress sauntered past the stair entrance. The man had his arm around the girl. There was at least ten meters between the roadside and the restaurant entrance, but the couple stuck close to the buildings.
The Hu Bei supervisor strode forward, snagging a menu with one hand as she went. She stopped a discreet distance away, menu unfolded. The thigh-high slit in her qi pao revealed long, white legs. Sin san, xiu je, sir, miss, have you eaten yet? Why not try our famous Hunan cuisine? Our special tonight is the braised pork.
Oh, no, were not interested, the young man said.
Or you can try our cold dishes to keep cool in this hot summer weather. Our cold meats and chilies are very good.
And this one, Im sure your lovely companion will enjoy it. Our cold vermicelli is very good for the skin—it opens the pores and promotes clear complexion.
Thank you, but we have already decided on somewhere else.
Dear, the girl in white said in a clear voice. Lets eat here. I like Hunan food. Her eyes flashed towards the street. There are beggars down the road, she said. I dont want to walk past them.
The young man eyes flickered back and forth between his girlfriend and the supervisor. All right. We can visit the Mao Guan next time.
The Hu Bei supervisor smiled and gestured up the stairs. Excellent choice, sir. Just head up the stairs and turn right. She cupped her hands around the microphone. Table for two, coming up.
Vicious, Kelvin said, watching the couple. I can barely understand Cantonese and I think that waitresss scary.
I want a qi pao when Im older! I said. Hey Kel, are those taxis stopping?
The right signal light on several taxis flashed. Kelvin pushed away from the wall. The lights flickered out and the taxis swerved away from the sidewalk, speeding down Tian He Bei Lu.
I stared. Kel, why arent the taxis stopping here?
Kelvin shook his head, his parted hair flopping lightly into his eyes. Thats strange. This is one of the prime stops, with the restaurants on this side and Teem Plaza on the other. Kelvin gripped the plastic leftover bag tighter and shot me a grin. Wait here, Ill see if I can catch a taxi. Walk out when I wave to you, okay?
I nodded. Kelvin moved under the shelter of a tree, looking out for a free taxi.
A wraith of a girl came up to Kelvin. She cupped her hands and raised them, her head tipped backwards to stare up at Kelvin. Her knobby knees stuck out under a faded pink-gray dress. Her clear brown irises stood out on her dust smeared face. Kelvin looked down and tried to walk around her. His steps faltered when the girl tottered after him.
Kelvin glanced around. All other passersby veered sharply away as they walked past, leaving a bubble of empty space with Kelvin and the little girl at its center. A woman in her late forties stood at the end of the street, a bundle knotted across her chest. Kelvin shook his head, a sharp abrupt movement, and turned away.
The little girl grabbed onto Kelvins knee, her hands sliding as Kelvin jerked his leg away. She clung onto his jeans.
The Hu Bei and Monte Carlo girls stared at Kelvin and the little girl. I caught the Hu Bei supervisors eyes, almond-shaped and dark, as she looked down at her notebook. She looked at me and glanced away.
A girl, about nine or ten, walked up to Kelvin, her back straight. She was dressed in a faded, flower patterned cotton shirt and short cotton pants. She held a bunch of flowers: tiny, burgundy red rosebuds with deep green stalks, wrapped in clear and silver plastic.
I encountered such beggar girls during my sixth grade China Trip the year before. The child beggars, a group of five, approached me; when my girl friends and I refused to buy their roses for one renminbi, they targeted the boys. Ted, a Taiwanese boy with an American accent, had flowers placed in his pockets and shoved into his hand. A beggar girl our age, with narrowed eyes and a sharp, pointed chin, flung a rose into his collar. Pei wo, pay me! she ordered.
Ted threw the roses on the floor and stepped on them. I remembered the broken, flattened petals on the pebbled street and the haunted look in the beggars faces. To us, one renminbi wasnt worth much, but to the beggars, it meant a potential meal. If our entire sixth grade class—a group of forty-two students—hadnt been there, the girls would have swamped him.
I leaped from the stair entrance and dashed to Kelvins side.
Da ge, big brother, please give me some money. Just a little, the little girl begged. Her voice was sweetly soprano, like little chiming bells, but her skin was smudged with dirt.
Kelvin shook his head and drew his leg back slowly. He kept his hands and arms tucked to his side. Kelvins movements dragged the little girl along for a few centimeters, her slippers rasping against the concrete tiles.
The rose girl glared and brandished her roses at Kelvin. Mei, little sister, let go. The little girl gazed mutely at her elder sister.
I grabbed Kelvins left arm and glared around him at the little girl on the other side. I didnt want to touch her. Kelvin jerked to face me and pulled away from the little girls loosened grip.
What are you doing here? Kelvin said, seizing my hand and pulling me towards the side of the road. I told you to wait until I get a taxi.
Its not like you can get a taxi with these girls latched on, can you? You cant even answer back! You dont speak enough Mandarin! I snapped.
You should have stayed. Its safer. Now they have two targets. Kelvin said. First cardinal rule with beggars: never give them money. Second: never give them an opening. Third: never show were expatriates. Kelvins eyes narrowed. We just broke the last two.
The rose girl looked at Kelvin, at me, then at Kelvin again. Her lips stretched upwards at the foreign syllables. Mai wo de hua, buy my flowers, buy my flowers! she cried, waving the roses at us. You have money! Her slippered feet dug into the sidewalk and she bent her knees, ready to spring at us. Kelvin pulled me behind his back.
Theres an empty taxi heading towards us, Kelvin said, bending his head towards his shoulder. His hair obscured his eyes. Ill try to flag it down. Get into it as quickly as you can.
The rose girl stamped her foot. She dragged her sister with her. Dont ignore me! she shrieked. The little girl clung at her pink skirt. Kelvin raised his hand, palm upraised. The taxi slowed down.
I swung away from the protection Kelvins back offered. Wo men bu yao ni de hua, we dont want your flowers, I snarled at the rose girl. The rose girl stared at me, her arm outstretched, the roses hanging limply in her hand. She was a year or two younger than me, but I towered over her.
I swallowed once, twice. My throat hurt. I pointed at the recycling waste bins nestled between two trees several meters away. My voice, when I spoke, was low. If you try to force us, Ill throw your roses away.
The rose girl stared at me, her eyes wide. Her outstretched hand trembled. The little girl half-cowered behind the taller rose girl. Her little mouth moved, but there was no sound.
Something gripped the collar of my shirt and dragged me backwards. Taxi. Get in now, Kelvin said, and shoved me towards the open taxi door. I scrambled over the wood-beaded seat coverings.
Hurry up, the taxi driver muttered, staring up at his rearview mirror, one hand wrapped around the clutch. I dont usually stop when there are beggars around.
Kelvin was two steps away from the taxi when the rose girl leaped. Her hands danced for the white leftover containers. Kelvin yanked his handupwards, the plastic bag streaking after it like a dog on a leash. He rushed into the taxi and slammed the door shut. The taxi jerked to life a second later.
Zhong Xin, Tian He North Road, Kelvin told the taxi driver and leaned back against the chair seat, breathing heavily. Vicious girls.
The taxi driver glanced up at the rearview mirror. Uh. You two are lucky. These beggars usually hunt in packs.
I know. Thank you for stopping, I said.
Kelvin glanced at me quizzically. So. What did you say to those girls?
Nothing, really. Just told them to leave us alone, I said in a small voice.
Kelvin patted me on the head and curled one arm around my shoulders.
I twisted in my seat and stared out the back window as the taxi sped away from the sidewalk. The rose girl and her sister stood hand in hand. The older woman at the street corner paced beside the two girls, flapping her hands and shaking her head sharply. The rose girl turned her head to one side, the roses crushed in her right hand.