Monday, December 05, 2005

Gratitude

It was in November that the novelty of being here wore off. One day I stepped outside and hoped only to make it to where ever it was I was going without anyone trying to speak to me. I longed to walk down the street in all the anonimity of Cleveland at rush hour. Ron and I wanted to wear sweatshirts with all our vitals printed on them in Chinese so we wouldn't have to answer the same old questions one more time.

"American"
"26"
"Student"
"Three months"
"To see steam locomotives"
"Yes, my friend really _is_ two meters tall."
"No, I don't want to buy that, that or that. And especially not that."

Just before leaving Daban, we were sitting in recliners at a bathhouse getting foot massages. A middle-aged man walked down the aisle, head looking back over shoulder to gawk at us. Until he stubbed his toe hard on one of the chairs and nearly fell over. It took all the self-control I could muster to not fall out of my own seat laughing.

Our setback in Zhalainuoer made me walk with just a little more caution when we arrived in Huanan, even though I had already had one very good experience there in the fall. Zhalainuoer reminded me that even though so many people look at us as if we are walking treasure chests just waiting to be exploited, we still aren't free to do _everything_ we please. It also reminded me that it is sometimes because of that very perception that we are able to get away with so much.

The kindness we received in Huanan, Touyaozi and Lixin transcended the monetary boundaries of buyer-seller relationships. We came as customers and left as friends. I can be hardheaded, though. I still didn't quite get it.

Riding back from our two-night stay in Lixin, we arrived in Touyaozi on the back of our horsecart on a cold, snowy, dark afternoon in the village. The first train since dawn was steaming through town, and we tried to position our horse and driver as props for our photos. Then a friend of the driver's, coming over to talk to him, stepped in front of me just as the train passed and ruined my shot. So even though the bells jingled on horse's harness and the fires burned warm inside the cozy homes, I rode with a scowl on my face down the main street of town.

Two tall foreigners on the back of a horse cart with several bags of gear are more than enough to attract the attention of every passer-by on a wintry Saturday afternoon in Touyaozi. I watched the road disappear behind us and met every staring face. One young man kept looking back, even as his female companion encouraged him onward. I wouldn't look away from him. I had to make sure that my eyes were always there to meet his. And as he looked back once again, I realized the expression my eyes carried was loathing.

It was like a great hand had reached down from the snow clouds and slapped me.

"WHY am I looking this way?" I asked myself. "I don't hate that man. He's just curious. I'm only one of a handful of foreigners he's ever seen. Whenever I walk down the street here, I'm one of the few foreigners many of these people will ever see. Do I want them to remember the scorn in my eyes?"

How many people will already remember that scornful look? I'm only here for another week, and for a moment I thought it was already too late. And it is too late for me to go back and change my expression for that young man in Touyaozi, but it isn't too late for the hundreds or thousands I will still pass on the streets in my last six days here. So as I walk the streets of Jixi (doesn't rhyme with dixie! -- jee-shee), I hold my head high and try to remember to turn up the corners of my mouth when someone looks my way. The Hairroahs, Hulloahs and Hel-LOs that I once tried to ignore I now meet with a cheery "Ni hao." And if someone tries to start a conversation, I try my best to continue it, and don't get too hard on myself when I can't.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Get a happy ending with the foot massage and steam bath?

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