The apology. A short story

Communication problems at a gift shop spiral out of control

“We have a question about China’s ethnic groups—”

“Minority Nationalities, not ethnic groups.”

“I know. That’s what’s confusing us. A display in the museum said there are both 56 Minority Nationalities and 56 ethnic groups. How could that be? One of the ethnic groups is the Han majority. There should be 55 Minority Nationalities, not 56, right?”

“No, there are 56 Minority Nationalities. The Han are a Minority too. They used to be called the Shaohao, who were the descendants of the Yellow Emperor. As they grew in population and political dominance, they rejected their own traditions and instituted changes. Later they renamed themselves the ‘Han’ to distance themselves from their Minority past. Over time, the Shaohao were forgotten, but survivors who refused to go along with the changes remain.”

“We didn’t see anything about this in the museum displays.”

“Of course, you didn’t. The Shaohao have been suppressed and live mostly underground. We are not allowed to organize or promote ourselves. The only place we are permitted to speak with the public is here in the gift shop.”

“You are a Shaohao?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. But I still don’t understand. Why are the Han counted among the Minority Nationalities in the museum display if officially they are proclaimed as the majority?”

“The Yangcheng city authorities gave us some control over the museum. This is, after all, our ancestral home.”

“George, look at the beautiful handcrafted jewelry over here.”

“I see. So all of this is yours? Shaohao crafts?”

“Yes.”

“Who do the proceeds of the sales go to?”

“Oh, there are no sales. None of this is for sale.”

“That’s odd. Why is this a gift shop if nothing is for sale?”

The translator exchanged some words with the mediator behind the counter. The mediator slipped into a room behind him and returned a moment later. They spoke again, and the translator said, “We are very sorry, but it is not allowed to insult the Shaohao. We are a spiritual people.”

“Isn’t this a gift shop? It says ‘Museum Gift Shop’ on the outside.”

“It is a gift shop. Patrons are allowed to look at the sacred artifacts. That’s our gift to patrons.”

Yvette laughed. “This place is creeping me out. Let’s get out of here.”

“What if I want one of these crafts?”

“They are not for sale!”

“Well, can we just take them for free then?”

“Don’t touch anything, Seth, until we figure out what’s going on here.”

“What a weirdo place.”

“Let’s just go, George.”

“If your stuff is so ‘sacred’ and can’t be touched, wouldn’t it be more logical to keep it all in the museum?”

“The gift shop is sacred, not the museum!”

The translator and the mediator behind his thick spectacles both looked more forlorn than angry in their empty little shop. A U-shaped passageway led past the display counters. As the family emerged out of the exit side, George stopped and said, “I think I hurt their feelings. Should I go back and apologize?”

“Are you kidding? They’re totally ridiculous. Let’s go.”

“But what if everything they’re saying is true?”

“They might put a hex on us.”

“Ha ha. No, they wouldn’t do that, Seth. But we don’t want to be bumbling foreigners, do we?”

“George, it’s really not necessary—”

He stepped back in through the exit.

“No, you must not come in! It is strictly forbidden to enter through the exit! Go back!”

He dashed up to the counter. “I just want to apologize for my disrespectful manner.”

“Under no circumstances are people allowed to enter through the exit! You have to re-enter properly through the entrance.”

“I’m just apologizing. I’m leaving now.”

“You have to die.”

“What?”

“The punishment for entering through the exit is death.”

“You’re joking. These guys are funny. They say I have to die because I entered through the exit. At least they have a sense of humor.”

His wife and son were waiting by the exit. They too now came through it and sauntered up. “This will make a great story,” Yvette said, frowning.

“As in, symbolically die, right? I remember studying that in a Renaissance poetry class back in university. In the Western alchemical tradition, you have to die a symbolic death in order to be reborn as gold, as the ‘New Man’ or homunculus, I think it was called. And Christians also spoke of the ‘dark night of the soul,’ where you basically had to undergo the experience of death and really feel you were dying if you wanted to attain spiritual grace. You guys have something like this?”

“This is not symbolic. You really have to die.”

“Yeah, right, everybody has to die.”

“Oh, give me a break,” Yvette laughed. “Who the hell are you guys?”

“Mom, look at these Indian feather earrings. They’re the same as we saw in those Indian gift shops back home on our Rockies trip.”

“And how, exactly, are we supposed to die?”

The translator whispered to the mediator, who went into the back room again. He emerged and whispered to the translator. “It will be decided shortly.”

Yvette was filming the conversation with her cellphone video.

“No cameras allowed in the gift shop!” yelled the translator.

She ignored him and continued pointing the video while approaching him. “Would you kindly tell us what offense we have caused you?”

The translator consulted with the mediator. Turning back to the family, he pronounced the following charges with stiff formality: “First, you referred to our country’s Minority Nationalities incorrectly as ‘ethnic groups.’”

“But they are ethnic groups,” retorted Yvette.

“No. They are Minority Nationalities.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Second, you gravely insulted the Shaohao by assuming our sacred artifacts are for sale.”

“We didn’t know.”

“What are these doing here?” Yvette gestured at one of the cabinets. “These are Native American earrings.”

“No! They are sacred Shaohao artifacts.”

“Well, I am extensively familiar with American Indian culture, and I can tell you these are exactly the same silver feather earrings that are handmade by Native Americans, with their distinct notches along the sides. You must have stolen them and are claiming them as your own. Let me see them!”

The translator whispered to the mediator, who walked over to the glass cabinet and opened it with a key.  He took out the earrings and handed them to Yvette, who turned them over. “They say ‘Made in China.’ No! That’s absurd. They are handcrafted only by Native Americans. You copied them and stole them!”

“Third,” the translator continued, “you have taken a video of sacred Shaohao space. That is forbidden, illegal, and unforgivable!”

“Do I see a sign anywhere saying cameras are forbidden?”

“You disobeyed us when we forbade you to use your camera.”

“Dad, why are they so mad at us?”

“Fourth, you have disturbed the sacred space by being disrespectful, loud and rude. Fifth, you have just made a completely unwarranted accusation of theft against us. These five offenses are somewhat understandable given that you are ignorant foreigners, and the penalties may be amenable to reduction, in spite of their gravity, if you showed the proper attitude of contrition. The sixth offense, however, is a capital offense and is not amenable to reduction or negotiation.”

“What offense?”

The translator again conferred with the mediator, who disappeared and reappeared from the back room. He reported back to the translator, who said, ”Entering through the exit!”

“Well, let me add a seventh, trespassing on private property! Who the fuck is it behind that door, the Wizard of Oz?” said George, jumping over the counter and pushing the door open. The translator and the mediator did not resist and were smiling. After running into the room he came back out. “It’s an office with a man sleeping on a cot and a strong smell of alcohol in the room.”

“So this is all an elaborate charade?” said Yvette. “Come on, George, we’ve had enough of this. Let’s go.”

They headed out through the entrance.

“No!” screamed the translator in horror. “Don’t exit through the entrance! Please, don’t! You can only exit through the exit!”

“What was that all about?” said Yvette as they left the shop.

“I think we’re free of the hex.”

 *     *     *

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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