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A Borrowed Straw Hat Helps Open a Foreigner's Eyes

The harbor of Sanya, a small port city on Hainan Island, is located in the warm waters of the South China Sea and is filled with anchored, brightly colored wooden boats in which fishing families live. Some of the vessels are large, cozy, and clean, with lacquered decks and strong masts. Others are smaller, more weathered, with dingy, rotted wood and rusty motors.

From my first day in Sanya, this mini- city of boats fascinated me. I had been teaching English in a rather dreary northern city in mainland China, so the fresh sea air, coupled with a very soothing change of scenery, was proving to be the perfect Chinese New Year's vacation spot. The goings-on of the water people I found especially interesting. I would stand for hours under the hot tropical sun, just to watch them on their boats, mending their nets or drying fish on stained canvas sheets.

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Because the fishing boats clustered in the harbor's center, the owners and family members needed transportation to and from each other's homes, as well as to the city's shore for marketing their goods. This was done by a taxi service of low skiffs that ferried people about for a few cents. The day before I left Sanya, I was motioned to by a solemn skiff owner who had noticed my interest in the boats. A short bargaining session took place, and for two kuai (40 cents), he agreed to motor me around the harbor so I could take pictures. It was a rare opportunity, not often presented to foreigners, so I took it.

Climbing into his narrow 13-foot boat, I sat near him and his shy five-year-old daughter. Both wisely wore straw hats for sun protection. I, however, had no head covering, a fact that apparently disturbed the boatman so much that he passed his own hat to me. I shook my head, but his kindness was too insistent. He continued to push the hat my way, so I thanked him, accepted the frayed head covering from his rough hands, and put it on.

He spent 40 minutes taking me about on his rounds. As he motored his skiff slowly between the large vessels, he and his daughter scanned the decks for waiting passengers. It appeared to be a slow time of day, for there were few wanting a ride.

Most were snoozing comfortably in hammocks after spending the night at sea and the morning hours in the market. I watched two children entertain themselves by tossing a baseball-sized bamboo cricket cage back and forth. We skirted an elderly woman playing with a small child who tottered toward her. The scenes were the same as those I'd seen on Sanya's streets and throughout China: people enjoying a bit of late-afternoon leisure time.

The boatman eventually picked up a few passengers. They would hail him with a terse wave and then, when he drew up alongside, they would lower themselves from their tall fishing vessels into his flat, decrepit skiff.

As he chugged them about, to other boats and the shoreline, I wondered which boat was his. I kept expecting him to point to one of those anchored in the center and announce, "That one is mine." At one point I even asked him which he owned. He didn't answer, so I assumed he had not understood my poor Chinese.

It wasn't until our trip was nearly finished, when my camera had run out of film and the harbor had begun to lose some of its novelty, that I began to notice my immediate surroundings: the bowls and chopsticks at my feet, the clay urn filled with fresh water, the cooking coals and wok tucked neatly under the bow, the tiny plank-covered compartment wadded with blankets and clothing.

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I then realized those clean, well-painted boats I admired did not belong to this man and his daughter. The skiff was where they lived. And I suddenly began feeling very ugly to be sitting in this kind man's home for a 40-cent ride that I had bargained down from 80 cents.

THE ride came to an end. My pilot slowed his skiff, butting into the rocky incline of the shore. Other skiff owners looked our way with sly grins, perhaps wondering what amount this silly foreigner would fork over for such an inane trip.

I stood up, removed the boatman's hat, which had shielded me from the burning sun, and placed it back in his hands.

"Xie xie (thank you)," I said in Chinese, then reached into my pocket to pay for my ride.

I pulled out a five-kuai ($1) note. It was generously above our agreed-upon price, yet not too high to create any loss of face for either of us. To him, any more would have offered unwanted pity; to me, any less would have conveyed a foreigner's disrespect.

The amount seemed appropriate. He nodded approval, silently took the money with no showmanship for his curious neighbors, and I stepped onto the shore.

Later, I turned back to watch him and his daughter already returning to business with a Sanya passenger. The skiff sped toward the maze of boats anchored in the harbor's center, and the last I saw, the new rider had accepted the boatman's straw hat while he sat squinting into the hot sun.

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