China is an interesting place to be for a foreigner.
First, let me begin by asking you: what do you know about China? Really? The fact that dog is eaten here may have popped into your mind, and perhaps you pictured deep fried ‘honey garlic’ something or other as well. Maybe you thought about the Great Wall. But really, for a country with 5000 years of written history, many North Americans know very little about life in the Orient.
Many of my friends and family assumed that I would be going to a country with more advanced technology than we have in Canada. Many people also assumed that I would be eating nothing but rice and chicken feet. But in reality, China is an incredibly diverse country. There are hundreds of local languages here, an incredibly diverse geology and every city has it’s own specialty cuisine. In short, China is so much more than you can imagine.
But as little as you know about China, China knows less about you!
Eight years ago, when I lived on the east coast, in a beautiful little city called Xiamen, I was stared at daily. I had people point at me and yell “Lao Wei!” (foreigner) so that their friends might notice in time and get a look at me too. I had people come up to me and ask for my photo. More often still, I caught people sneaking photos of me. There were times when an interested man or woman would come up to me as I shopped, pulling things out of my cart to see what the strange ‘lao wai’ was purchasing. Everywhere I went in Xiamen, I was pointed at, shouted at and stared at. Whether I was taking a 2am stroll (the only time I found quiet in that small city of 2 million people), or walking up the path to my apartment, I was constantly met with stares and pointing. And of course, the ever-present sound of the words “Lao Wai!!!!”
I imagined it would be different in Guiyang. 8 years have passed, and thousands of teachers have arrived and left the country since I departed in 2006. Nearly every young person here now speaks at least a little English. EAL teachers are everywhere, working for private training centers (like I am), for private schools and even at public schools. There are easily a hundred of us in Guizhou province alone.
And if the presence of white teachers isn’t enough, Western culture has also permeated life here. Guiyang has several KFC restaurants, 2 Pizza Huts, 3 Walmarts, a Starbucks and H&M, just to name a few. English is everywhere! In their music, on their signs and on their T-shirts. Any company who aims to have a ‘cool’ image must have English in their name, even if no one within the company speaks a word of the language. People here are obsessed with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and today I even heard “Criminal”, by Brittany Spears, blasting from a lingerie store. 8 years ago, this was not the case. Sure, there was a Walmart and KFC in Xiamen, but seeing English on signs and T-shirts was hardly an every day occurrence.
Yet, the sight of a foreigner is still shocking for the majority of Chinese people.
A few weeks ago, I was driving my scooter to school, when a bus pulled up beside me. I had to focus on the traffic and ignore the commotion that my presence had caused in that bus. Windows were rolled down, and people were shouting and laughing and saying ‘Hello!’. I sometimes feel like an un-talented celebrity when this happens! (Perhaps this is how the Kardashians feel?) When Dave and I went and visited QianLing Hill Park, we were in as many pictures as we took! Even the monkeys seemed to think we were interesting and strange!
On good days, this isn’t an issue. I laugh and smile and respond to their calls with ‘hello’. A simple wave, or greeting in response to their excitement usually results in further excitement. “Did the Lao Wei just say hello to ME!!! Oh My God!!!”. I waved at a child who was staring at me from a restaurant this week. Her entire family waved back. Some of them even stood up to get a better view of me! And this, I should add, was in Zhong Tian Garden, where I live. There are between 8 and 10 EAL teachers who live in this area, yet it’s still exciting for them to see one of us.
On bad days, this aspect of life in China is less enjoyable. Being stared at while you are fighting back tears after a particularly difficult day, is not a pleasant feeling. Having a crowd form around you, while you struggle to chain your scooter to a gate because it has a flat tire, is exasperating. There are some days where I want to shout: “What’s wrong with you! Didn’t your mothers ever teach you that it’s rude to point!!!”. But I don’t. I know that even if I did, they probably wouldn’t understand me anyway, so I keep my head down and try to blend in with the masses. I’m vertically challenged so that’s easy, but it’s certainly harder for some of the tall teachers at Interlingua.
Still, in spite of these bad days, I’d say life in Guiyang is more interesting than upsetting. More often than not, people here are curious, but kind. We’ve had people bring out dishes for us that other customers in the restaurant have paid for us to try. Most people thrilled when I greet them in Mandarin, and embarrassed but excited when I respond to their ‘Lao Wei!!!’ with a ‘hello’ and a coy smile. (Yes, I know that you are talking about me…).
I consider myself lucky to be in China in 2014, during such a time of growth. In the last 8 years, many things have changed: I now see English everywhere I go, I hear English Music in cars and in stores and I can shop at H&M (I can’t even do that in Winnipeg!). But in some ways, China continues to be its cut-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world self. The people here still marvel at the foreigner as though they are something special and interesting. I can’t help but wonder whether this will still be the case in 8 years from now.