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  • When we arrived in Beijing, we followed the advice of other travelers we’d met along the way and checked into the Xiao Yuan Hotel.

    Something struck me as odd about this place from the moment we stepped into its drab lobby. Scanning the building, I couldn’t locate a single individual who appeared older than sixteen. The desk clerks, in snappy blue vests and matching skirts or trousers, were curt and unfriendly in ways that suggested kids on a kind of power trip — a Chinese version of Lord of the Flies. The Xiao Yuan Hotel was, I would soon come to realize, a hotel run entirely by children.

    The street on which the hotel was located was called Dongbin He Road, and it featured an ad hoc assortment of simple businesses clearly set up to cater to the foreign backpackers lodged at the Xiao Yuan.

    On Dongbin He Road, as in similar wards the world over, the greeting “hello” took on a different meaning. Perhaps you’ve experienced this in your travels, where “hello” is both a greeting and an implied invitation to transact some business. The 100-meter walk from my hotel to my favorite of the little restaurants on Dongbin he Lu, a place called the Pink House, sounded something like this:

    As I passed the bicycle rental concession set up in an alley next door to the hotel, I heard: “Hello, Bicycle.”

    “No. American,” I said.

    “Hello, bike,” the vendor added cheerily.

    “No, no,” I said.

    No sooner had I passed the bike shop when an old man called out from behind a little push cart enveloped in steam: “Hello, pancake.”

    “No. My name’s Erik,” I said and waved.

    A little further down the road, I heard a shop window slide open as I passed by. “Hello, change money,” a woman called out, but not too loudly, her eyes darting to and fro.

    “No, I’m sorry, you’re mistaken,” I said.

    The shopkeeper’s next-door neighbor, also a woman, called out, “Hello, laundry.” But before I could respond, a man peered around the corner at me and whispered, “Hello, special price, train ticket.”

    I picked up my pace a bit and listened to no one else as I made my way to the Pink House restaurant. The sign on the door read, “Welcome, Potato Salad.”

    Photograph by Jeff Wildgen
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