老外/Laowai literally means “old outside” but actually just means “foreigner.” The “old” part connotes respect (see the words for teacher, wife, husband and elder: 老师， 老婆， 老公， 老人家, respectively). People usually call us laowai, and that’s fine. I can’t remember Chinese names for shit, so I make up my own names for everyone anyway [the people in my neighborhood are Harriet Fruit-Lady, Stella Fruit-Lady, Cecelia NuoMiFan (best 糯米饭 in China, y’all!), Chinese Mr. Rogers (dude rocks a cardigan), and the Green Family (Their restaurant sign is green. Shut up! Clarity beats wit.)]. I hope that our neighbors have special names for us, like “American Fancystockings” and “Foreign Pretty-Glasses,” but I suspect that we’re just The Laowai.
Can you spot the foreigner in this picture?
No bigs. We’re never going to blend. And it’s not like there are so many foreigners wandering Anshun’s streets that they need to differentiate us from each other. When we moved here, we were, as far as we know, the only two foreigners in town. One day at the visa office, we ran into one grumpy American (He was snappish with my waiban. Want to get on the shortlist of people I wouldn’t ask paramedics to pull from a burning cardboard box? Get snappish with the guy who went on a special trip to buy me a space heater because he read that it might get cold that weekend.), but when I asked him how long he’d be in Anshun, he said, “as little as possible,” so I’m sure he’s gone by now. Last Thanksgiving weekend, a 70-something Irish dude showed up at our house, and he’s cool. But we only saw him the once. We had Joanne for awhile, a hilarious, whip-smart Bruneian girl who springed (earlier than summering, later than wintering) on the beige shores of Anshun, but she’s abandoned us for stupid college (We miss you, Joanne!). Oh, and there’s a shady dude who wears shiny shirts and tells Eric to shave his beard so he can get with Chinese girls. He (Mr. Shady, not Eric) also pretends he’s British when he clearly isn’t (Has anyone heard of Oslo, England yet? Until then, he’s a creeper.). So I’m saying that, in this town, foreigners are rare. Even tourists don’t pop up much. Several months ago in our Byzantine open market, I walked past two stocking-capped, backpacked foreigners, but they, like many foreigners China, averted their eyes as soon as they saw me (Travelers, what’s up with that? I’ll talk to you in Mandarin if a total immersion experience is really that important to you.).
Anyway: Near campus, they’re used to us; we see the same people every day, get crazy with the small talk (us: Mandarin / them: Anshun’s dialect). Even the people we don’t often talk to see us enough to know we’re teachers at the college who like to snack on 小聚字 and wave at all the street dogs. No one calls us 老外, except 娜娜, who is 18 months old, and whenever she says it, her parents tell her instead to call us “Auntie” and “Uncle” (阿姨 and 叔叔). I’m sure they call us 老外 when we’re not around because what else would you call us? But they get that we’re not just 老外. Or at least we’re their 老外.
But whenever we leave our area, we attract stares. And giggles. And catcalls. We go to the train ticket office, and someone yells “haalllllooo” from across the street. When we look, they turn away and laugh.* We go shoe shopping, and mothers grab their toddlers and point and say “看到老外！” (Look at the foreigners!).
On the same day that I saw the two foreigners in the open market, a woman standing not two feet away pointed at me, laughed and yelled “老外！” over my head to her friend across the street. At the time, I hadn’t learned enough Chinese to deal gracefully, so I glared at her and harrumphed away, trying to cuss away the powerlessness.
I’ve since developed what I hope are friendlyish ways to deal with the attention—I ask people in Chinese how they knew we were foreigners (It’s a funny joke!) or ask them if they’re a foreigner too (Equally funny!). Sometimes, just starting a little conversation with whatever stranger is handy works—1) If the catcaller is still paying attention, they then figure out that I speak Chinese, but more importantly 2) Because the person I’m talking with usually responds graciously, with a combination of enthusiasm and, when I’m lucky, nonchalance (How I love not being a big deal!), I’m reminded that not every Chinese person is out to yell insensitive crap at me, that I can connect, in whatever momentary way, with the people in my community. Sadly, my Chinese isn’t good enough to have an in-depth conversation about the objectification of the other and the wacky cultural differences in expressions of respect and rudeness, but I take what I can get.
[Also, some people that I try to talk to just stare at me in shock and stammer that they don’t speak English (I don’t think my Chinese is that bad, so I’m not sure what that’s about). But usually, people are nice. I should more often give people the opportunity to remind me that they want to be nice to me.]
[Also also, sometimes, I do not respond gracefully. Sometimes, people catch me when I’m tired—a wise friend pointed out that sleep is the most important resource a PCV has—or hungry or stressed out, and I don’t react well. I stop; I glare; I tell them, in Chinese, to stop being rude (or, once, I mixed up two similar-sounding words and told some poor guy to stop being boring; he looked so sad. I feel really guilty about that one). Sometimes I talk to myself loudly in Chinese about rude people and how they’re annoying me to DEATH! which is so very passive aggressive of me, and I’m not proud, and I’m sorry that I’m not always the best foreigner I can be.]
My Chinese friends say that the catcallers and gawkers don’t mean it badly, that they’re just curious, that they’re trying to be friendly. I don’t exactly buy it. 1) Some of them do mean it badly, which is to say that they mean to make their friends laugh or to make themselves look good and aren’t thinking about us as people, which is understandable and human, but one of the lamer elements of being human. It’s lame when Americans do it—in our own, sneaky American way—to foreigners or homeless people or whomever we think is freaky. It’s lame when Chinese people do it to me. Plus, 2) even if they don’t mean it badly, I don’t know how much that matters. But maybe that’s because I’m American? It seems like my Chinese friends care more about what people mean; I care more about what people do. Neither is a better or worse way to look at things (Really; both have benefits and drawbacks, and of course, it’s so much more complex than I’ll make it sound in a blog post, and really, does it matter, ideas like better and worse?); it’s just difficult sometimes to reconcile two apparently opposing philosophies. And maybe one is a better outlook when you’re living in China, and the other is better when you’re in America.
It’s easy to rethink something or see it from someone else’s perspective, but it’s so difficult to unlearn an emotional reaction. So when strangers yell at me and laugh, I react the way I would in America—I get hurt. I feel angry. No matter how well they mean it. The best I can do most days is keep my auto-pilot reaction on the inside and react like a sane person on the outside. When I don’t have the energy for it, I try not to leave the area of our campus. All that is a lot of emotional work to go through. We have a few friends in town, but the language and culture barriers are such that hanging out with them isn’t exactly a comfort yet; it’s more like an investment in the possibility of future comfort.
I’m glad we moved to China. I love learning new things about Chinese—and, by extension, American—culture. I love learning to speak, read, and write Mandarin. I love that the high school girl that works in Green Family’s restaurant rubs my shoulder to say hello. I love that 娜娜 unwraps gum and gives it to me when I’m done eating at her parents’ restaurant. I love visiting schools in the countryside with our tutor and watching her start gleeful, liquor-fueled crap with people at banquets (even when I don’t understand the dialect she’s using). I love having the same conversation with the Harriet Fruit-Lady every day (You going home? / Yes. How’s business? / Good. / See you tomorrow!). I love working with my students. But living in China as a foreigner can feel isolated sometimes. Isolation, like a dearth of central heat or hot water in the kitchen, is one of the hardships I signed up for, but it still feels pretty whack. In philosophical moments, I get that this is a valuable experience for me to have. I grew up blond on a peninsula of blondness, and as I’ve moved from state to state, I’ve continued fit in, more or less. But in China, I’m irrevocably marked by my skin and my hair and my speech as an other. Of course, I still carry the privilege of being white and American and educated and temporarily-but-not-really-poor (fingers crossed!); I’m not going to pretend. But sometimes it does suck, and suck is suck is suck, no matter how much un-suck I’m otherwise granted, and no matter how much worse other people have it. Their good isn’t less good because mine is better, right? So the opposite is true too, I think. That’s probably several kinds of logical fallacy, but I’m sticking to it for now.
You are tempted to comment with something inspirational. You want to give me a practical solution. You want to line smog with silver. Please, gentle reader, resist. Sometimes things should be complicated and difficult. Let’s just let me struggle.
*I should note here that laughter can mean very different things for Chinese people than it does for Americans. Laughter in both places communicates complex, amorphous emotions; but in each country, they’re slightly different complex, amorphous emotions; plus, where and when it’s appropriate to laugh is different. So, you know. You know?