Sunday, November 20, 2005

Laowai

That's Chinese for "old foreigner," and while it isn't exactly derogatory, it's far from flattering.

This afternoon I caught the last bus from Daban to Lindong as it was pulling out of the station. I twisted through the aisle of the nearly-full bus to the rear, where I contorted myself past an old man and into the two seats by the right window on the five-seat bench. I stowed my camera bag and tripod behind me, opened my book and hoped no one would bother me on the 1-1/2 hour to Lindong. I don't mean to sound like a crab, but I'm an introvert, and that's a tough hand to hold in around here. Every now and then (and lately more often, it seems) I want a little a more privacy than a country of 1.3 billion can afford.

I no sooner had my book opened than the young man sitting in front of me had whirled around to look over the back of the seat and see what I was reading. I patiently held up my copy of Denise Giardina's The Unquiet Earth for him to see, then returned to the pages. His curiosity was sparked. He spoke to the old man occupying the middle seat of the rear bench, who them moved over to the left window seat. The young man in front then nearly lept from his seat to the one just vacated beside me. He peered intensely at my book and then pointed, demanding to see it. I handed it over for his examination. He looked at the cover, flipped through a few pages, then returned it to me. I found my place and resumed reading.

He asked me something in Chinese that may or may not have been "What country are you from?" I've learned to listen for key words, and anytime I hear guo (land or country), I respond with meiguo (America). He looked at me, slid a few inches away, gestured and said something to the people sitting in the adjacent seats, and they all began chuckling and looking at me, and him the loudest.

There was a time not long ago when I would have ducked my head in shame and avoided their eyes, or perhaps laughed along with them. Maybe if he had just laughed, I still could have done that. But eight weeks have hardened me, and his sliding away was too much. I turned to face him and looked him in the eyes, looked deeply inside them to where the deep brown ran up against the black edges of his small pupils, and said without speaking, "Why are you laughing at me?"

He stopped laughing. He turned away, said not one further word to me for the rest of the trip, and though he continued to steal glances here and there, avoided my eyes altogether.

I loathed him for a moment, but then I wanted to tell him how hard it is for me here knowing so little of the language. The children here are my favorites. They're the most innocently curious and understanding, and indeed with my speaking abilities I often feel about like a two-year-old. Sometimes I'm also treated like one. Sometimes I imagine those condescending, laughing people asking me why on earth would I even try to come to their country without knowing more of their language? If I waited for that, though, I might never come.

I can't hate that man. I'd like to think I could tell him that he wouldn't be treated the way he's treating me if he was a visitor in my country, but that's about as big of a lie as anything I could dream up. He's as big a reason to my being here as any train, wall or painting. I came here to feel like a foreigner, a stranger, a minority. I came here to remind myself that traveling is a privilege, not a right, and that I must always find my polite smile, despite how deeply I may have to dig. And I came here so that when I see him looking lost in a Chicago cafe, I won't even have the first impulse to snicker.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's so true.. It seems american's expect everyone who comes here to speak english, but few are willing to learn any part of a foreign language before heading out of the country. sigh... I'm so jealous of your wonderful adventures :-)

KTB

Anonymous said...

Lupé, I'm just now catching up on your trip a bit. Sounds a little tiring, but quite a whirlwind! I'm impressed at what you have learned so quickly.

Travel safely,
-PGA

Torah Cottrill said...

Well done, Scott. Finding compassion for people who don't obviously deserve it is one of the best and hardest things a good person can do.

Alex said...

Wait... so you are coming to a Chicago cafe, soon? ;-) I'm looking forward to it!

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