Being a Highly Respectable Foreigner with Chinese Characteristics

Foreigner Advert for TeaYou like spicy food?  You know how use chopsticks?  You know Chinese President Hu Jintao?

Of course I do.  Chinese people are so easy to impress.  Either their expectations are very low, or I just don’t fit the mold of a stereotypical American.

A college mathematics student at a party told me that while hanging out in Beijing and Shanghai she was amazed at the ignorance of foreigners pouring into the country without knowing the current president or the role Deng Xiaoping (kind of pronounced  like “Dung show—rhymes with plow—ping”) played in the Reform and Opening of China.  Of course everybody knows Chairman Mao Zedong.  But to know that under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership the People’s Republic of China took its first steps towards modernization—and he’s why Americans and other Westerners are now allowed in China in the first place—to know something of this is to earn beaucoup street cred.  If life was a video game then my Mianzi (prestige and face) status bar would be at full strength.

The Only Westerner in Town

After several days in country I felt isolated, especially after getting locked out of my apartment with nothing but a pair of soccer shorts and Chaco sandals.  I had knocked on doors looking for other laowai but it seemed that the other five foreigners were out of town.   Luckily, I discovered the kindness of my Chinese neighbors and was able to get back into my room.  But I had still felt very alone in the world.  Cleaning my apartment proved an effective remedy.

Then near the end of my first week in China I finally met another Westerner—one of the “Foreign Experts.”

I was surfing the net, totally vexed that Twitter and Facebook were blocked, and making tea when somebody knocked on my door.  Looking through the door’s peep-hole I found that my first pre-consciousness reaction was still wired to Western Civ standards: “This is interesting.  There is a street person knocking on my door.”  That’s how I met George (not his real name)—who goes by Gee (not his real nickname).  Gee is your hard boiled American expat who has been living in China for years.

Eager to have my first guest, I invited Gee inside.  I had been cleaning my apartment for days and  had finally gotten it spruced up to a satisfactory level of cleanliness.   He stepped inside.  Somethin smelled like booze and cigarettes.  A wisp of gauze clung like Velcro to his chin full of stubble.

The first thing Gee did was turn on my TV which had been off since my arrival.  He explained that there was only one English channel which was “our” salvation.  It took him about five minutes to figure out the remote control.  His effort was great and valiant and I did not have the heart tell him I was not interested in television.  I listened patiently as he taught me some of the basics of expat life: “Man, Chenzhou is crazy.  Kreyyy zeeee.   Chenzhou is crazy.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know, man.  Have you been out there?  It’s a freakin’ death trap, man.  It’s just crazy.  There’s no law, man.  Even the pigs don’t follow the law.”  Gee talked and walked as if the speech and motor centers of his brain had been fried by chronic drug abuse–but he was a native English speaker, and so he was hired–like me–sight unseen and voice unheard.

Gee was heading over to the shops to buy cigarettes and invited me to come along with him.  Since I hadn’t been down to the shops I went along.  We walked down the hill sweating with the sun beating down upon us.  Again he told me about how crazy this town was.  And I pointed out the gauze on his chin.  He couldn’t rub it off, so I tried to pull it off for him.  It refused to  pull away from his facial hair.  I gave up after getting most of it off his chin.  “Thanks, man!”  He patted my arm, “Thanks!”

On our way down the hill we passed a garden.   He told me there was bird he talks to who lives in the garden.  I looked to where he was pointing.  There was a garden and a footpath and some benches.  A small waterfall trickled over a cliff and into a frog pond.  I didn’t see any birds.  Except for the occasional stray dog or cat, there was a conspicuous absence of wildlife in this part of China.

Perhaps this made me miss Smethport, Pennsylvania.  It was a place where you could see deers, bears and hawks on a morning run along old country roads–“Hey baby, you want me don’t you,” Gee said, interrupting me.  I looked at what Gee was talking about.  A Chinese woman walked up the hill, shielding herself from the sun with an umbrella.

She looked up at him, smiled, and said, “Hello” as she walked past.

I asked Gee why he said that to her.  His explanation, “Ah, man they don’t know.”

When Gee referred to students as “girlfriends” pointing in the direction of the English Department and telling me how important it is to make friends with the Chinese so you can get around, I asked him if he had ever had a relationship with a Chinese woman.  He told me in a conspiratorial aside, as if he was Master Po and I was his Grasshopper, “Maybe when I get to know you better I’ll tell you.”

Maybe it would not be convenient for me to get to know him better.  Now it had only been about a week in country and I was already thinking Chinese.  I was assimilating quite well.

There was a hot, dirty road that separated the university on the hill from the shops. The road swarmed with traffic going to and fro—as all roads have a tendency to do.  But there was something ominous about the way this road swarmed with traffic.  It was only a two lane road.

“Man this place is crazy.  Crazy.  You see how they drive?  They say a student is killed every semester crossing this road.”  He tapped my arm to make sure I was paying attention.

We crossed the busy road.  Cars beeped and swerved around each other.  Driving was very different in China.  And so was being a pedestrian.   To stop or yield to other drivers or pedestrians was to lose face.  It was much better to save face by going around an obstacle.  Like in Italy and other parts of Europe, Chinese pedestrians never made eye contact with drivers.  In fact, you pretended you didn’t know a car was about to run you over as you crossed the street.

And one more thing–as a pedestrian you walked slowly and stayed predictable.  This allowed motorists to predict your behavior so they could act accordingly.  You stayed your path, relinquished freewill, and gave all responsibility for what might happen to the driver, who then was able move forward without colliding into you or oncoming traffic.  Sometimes this meant driving on the margin, off road, or even in the opposite lane.  Seldom did it require the driver to make a split second cost benefit analysis between matrices of car vs. truck, car vs. car, car vs. scooter, car vs. person, or some combination thereof.

Having safely negotiated the threshold, we journeyed onwards to the strange outer world of the Chinese market area.  It was in a store that seemed to be full of junk food, a wall stacked with shelves of Ramen noodles, and school supplies that one of my students called.  It was Vanno.  It was the perfect escape.  I was supposed to have lunch with him and his family.

I first met Vanno on the day of my arrival and we had since become friends.  But Gee tagged along with me as I made the long climb back up the hill to the Chemistry Department where I was to meet my friend.

Vanno just happened to be wearing a white wooden cross around his neck. I noticed it but didn’t say anything.  Gee saw this and grabbed it as if to inspect it more closely, “You’re a Christian?”  Gee made a big deal about it especially because everybody thinks that China is completely atheistic.

Vanno placed his hands over his cheeks to hide an embarrassed smile.  He wasn’t blushing, but you could tell he felt the vasodilatory heat in his face.  “No,” Vanno said after hesitating, “But I think it is very beautiful.” Later I found out that his grandmother had been a priest and had given it to him as a gift.  But he and his family are not religious.

Now I was hoping that Vanno and I would go, and I told Gee that we were late and had to meet up with Vanno’s family.  But of course, Vanno–out of sheer politeness–was compelled to invite Gee along.  And of course, Gee knew that this meant getting a free meal.  So Gee came with us.

The journey downtown was Gee’s invitation to become an incessant chatterbox: His running commentary on the craziness of Chenzhou went over Vanno’s head and made mine ache.  Throughout it all was an occasional, “Hey, honey” or “I can do whatever I want because I’m American” as he slapped my knee or tapped my arm.

After lunch Vanno took us to a bookstore.  We had eaten well and had spicy pork and dumplings washed down with Chinese beer.  Everything was happening merrily and we had just turned into an old hutong where people set up tents and stalls against the walls leaving only a narrow footpath so that you were forced to look at their fruit and cheap, plastic Hello Kitty knickknacks.  Thats when Gee asked Vanno,  “Hey, man, so where can we find women?”  He used the pronoun “we” and I sick of putting up with his shit.

Now, China is socially conservative.  And people like Vanno and his family adhere to traditional values.  This was self-evident even for a socially handicapped American.  So Gee’s question confused Vanno–as there were women all around–and men and children all bustling along in a whirlwind of the vibrant, grungy pageantry of an overpopulated Chinese metropolis.  For Vanno such a question was like asking where all the buildings and cars were.  Here even a blind man could hear cars throttle past and the decrepit buildings sigh and groan.  So when Gee started to breakdown the concept of a “Red Light District” in terms a young ESL student could grasp, I stepped in and re-directed the conversation—a simple Jedi mind trick easily done to somebody I was beginning to suspect suffered from chronic thiamine deficiency.

We soon found the bookstore and went inside while Gee looked around for a place to buy cigarettes.