The other day I had to catch a taxi into town, and pulling off of ZhouShan Dong Road traffic was somewhat congested. As we were slowed to a crawl, the driver frantically looking for a hole in traffic he could dart through, my gaze fell on two women on a bike. One was pedalling, the other was sitting on the rack in back, facing the road. I couldn’t hear her, but when she saw me I could easily read the words her lips spoke to her friend: “There’s a laowai over there.” A foreigner.
Of course, this kind of incident is a daily occurrence. I caught her eyes and raised my eyebrows, communicating, “Yes, I am a laowai, and I understood what you just said.” She blushed, covered her mouth, and tucked her head behind her friend, no doubt recounting this shocking development. I’m getting better at that look.
To live in China is to be constantly reminded that you are a foreigner, that you are different, and that you don’t really belong here. When I say we foreigners don’t “belong” here, I’m not saying we’re unwelcome. Sometimes we are very welcome. It’s just that we don’t belong.
This idea is communicated in many different ways. One way is that it’s difficult to have conversations with new people that aren’t centered on where I’m from, why I’m here, how long I’ve been here, how much I make, if I’m used to Chinese food, etc. If you’re a foreigner, that’s simply what everyone wants to talk to you about. Every now and then I’ll meet someone new and have an entirely normal conversation that is completely unconnected to the fact that I’m a foreigner. When that happens, it’s so refreshing, and I just feel so grateful for being treated not just as a foreigner, but just as a person. And it’s absurd that I should have those feelings. I guess you could say I’m finally understanding what it’s like to be a minority, and that minorities in the USA have similar experiences, but I still think it’s different.
Of course, the other way the idea is communicated is a little more bluntly. The stares. People yelling, “Hello!” and then laughing if you turn to look. People feeling the need to alert everyone in the vicinity that a laowai has entered the scene. People talking about you right next to you on the bus, assuming you understand nothing.
This is all part of life in China, and it must be accepted. But what’s really hard to accept is the fact that China will continue on like this, no matter how good my Chinese gets. I don’t know, I guess it’s stupid, but I know that one day I’m going to be speaking more than good Chinese–I’m going to be speaking kickass Chinese–and that in return for that accomplishment I should get treated normally. That if enough time passes, Chinese people should get used to me. It’s absurd, but somewhere in the back of my mind, there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to that day. And that day is simply never going to come.