Laughing Buddha

A Souvenir from Wangfujing // Photo by Joshua Webb

“看,看,看一看!” His right arm slices through the air, but he’s not practicing tai chi.

He’s pointing at us.

The bamboo-shaped Chinese vendor finally comes out with it after catching his breath: “Happy Buddhaaaa!” Laughter crackles in the crowd like Chinese fireworks. I check on my friend John, who is wearing a Chinese revolutionary t-shirt featuring the one and only Lei Feng. “Welcome to Wangfujing,” he smiles, his teeth as bright as white teacups.

John’s shadow looks exactly like the silhouette of the Laughing Buddha. Both are big and bald, after all. Laughing Buddha is the obese, gold statue located in countless Chinese American restaurants. Many centuries ago a Buddhist artist created this image, I imagine. He lived in a culture of food scarcity. Obese was cute. But I don’t live in that culture. For the artist behind the image, Laughing Buddha’s fat body represents happiness and prosperity. But for me it also represents two things.

Diabetes and heart disease.

The laughter drifts away. Wind-ruffled traditional Chinese red lanterns tremble overhead; it’s a cold breeze. An elderly woman curls her hands around steaming coffee. Or is it hot soybean milk? Scorpions are impaled on sticks. People stir in and out the streets. People mountain, people sea. I see paper fans and Air Jordans. Chinese seal stones sit in rows on a street vendor’s table. A teenager, holding her iPhone like it’s a walkie-talkie, speaks Chinese to a friend on WeChat. “你在哪里?” she moans. Beijing is traditional and modern.

Wangfujing Ads // Photo by Joshua Webb

三, 二, 一, bid! The bidding war ends fast. John buys a Chairman Mao shoulder bag, and, to his surprise, he finds out it’s five 元 cheaper around the next corner. Street vendor, one; John, zero. He exhales a barely audible curse. I jump. “John, did you see that? One tried to grab me!” The street vendors await my eye contact with them and smile like that giant yellow rubber duck and even speak English: “Hello! Hello!” Not a single “你好!” Even though every single Chinese language textbook I’ve been studying taught me “你好!” from the first lesson. These street vendors are so friendly it’s downright suspicious. Regardless, John buys a custom-made Chinese seal stone. Oh, what the hell? I buy a Chinese comb for my little sister. A mixture of rotten Chinese food and vinegar, the smell from a nearby garbage barrel makes me wish for a second that one of the five human senses I learned about in my 5th grade health class didn’t exist. Laughing Buddha necklaces rest on a nearby table. It’s an apt souvenir.

So I buy one.