Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Merchant of Nanchong

I haven't been writing much. At this point, I am utterly wu-yü, the wonderful Chinese word for "speechless." Over the past couple weeks, the realization has sunk into me slow and deep, like bathwater into a bathmat: I will always be a foreigner in this country. The word laowai is scrawled across my forehead in big indelible block letters that won't wash off no matter how much Lava I use, or how much of the language I learn. At the four-month mark, I figured that I would grow less visible as I went along. I could imagine a day in the distant future when I would blend in with the people on the bus, an oddly pale, unusually hairy Chinese salaryman and nothing more. But a few days ago, as a mob gathered round the cash register to watch me purchase a roll of toilet paper, it hit me: Petit, my friend, you will never make another sane toilet paper transaction again, not in Nanchong, not in China, not until you are well back in the Nebraskan suburbs, standing in the impulse aisle down at No Frills.

In Nanchong, I am a C-List celebrity, like Steven Seagal or Kramer from Seinfeld. People crane their necks as I pass. "Is that - holy shit, it is!" When I get on the bus, it's like Andy Warhol's gone and cracked a canister of nitrous in the air vent: laughter, merriment, Crazy English, hello!!! how are you!!!, etc., etc. I lead a humdrum Chinese life - I take the bus to work, I take the bus back home; I buy a roll of toilet paper and some Brillo pads - but every public appearance I make is a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle for the people around me. And unless I get a face transplant or invest in an invisibility cloak, my life will remain a spectacle for the next two years.

The elderly are amused by me. I seem to frighten children. But I am wildly popular with the 18 to 22 year-old demographic. College kids are my biggest fans, and because I live on one college campus and make a daily commute to another college campus, my afternoons are a flurry of hellos, how are yous, and incoherent encounters with complete strangers.

Today, I happened to be waiting in line for the ATM as Nanchong's elementary and middle school students were pouring out of class. A little kid bumped into my leg and, looking up at me, said (in Chinese), "Whoa. Fuck!" Meanwhile, there was such a ruckus around me that it was impossible to pick out anything but the word "foreigner." My pulse shot up into the triple digits. Blood pressure: 240 over 160 and rising. There are days that I take the fanfare in stride, and days when I feel like I'm on the verge of a myocardial event. I wanted to dissolve into a little puddle of laowai atoms and ooze down the nearest sewer grate. I wanted to evaporate into a noble gas and swirl up into the chalky Nanchong sky. I wanted to vanish. But in order to vanish, I needed to withdraw money for lunch at the ramen place, where people would gather around my table to watch me slurp up my noodles, and a haircut, which would draw a crowd, and the bus, where I would be ogled, and ... I am not a religious man, but there in the ATM confessional booth, with a couple of college dudes peering over my shoulder, I prayed to some higher power to deliver me to my apartment, where nobody but Doctor Zhivago was waiting for me.

Foreigner, hello! Foreigner, my name is ... Foreigner, welcome to China! Foreigner ... An epic monologue took form in my throat: "Yes, we are laowais! But if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you stare at us, do we not feel rather awkward? If you shout hello! at us from a distance of twenty feet, do we not cringe?" But a fiery speech would've only attracted more people. There was nothing to be done.

I was walking to the ramen place when a college kid grabbed me by the elbow. My neckhairs shot up. I turned and eyed him wearily. What was it going to be? English lessons? Your phone number, please?

"You forget," he said, and like a magic trick, produced my ATM card.
"Holy shit," I said. "Thank you so much!"
He must've chased me for blocks. Amidst days of claustrophobia, an individual will break from the crowd and do something unspeakably kind, and you wind up feeling bad for being such a damned curmudgeon all the time.

To my credit, I handle the attention gracefully. There are westerners who do not. But it seems to irk me more than most, perhaps because I'm introverted, or because Chinese people find me unusually approachable, or because I happen to live in a swirling Han Chinese metropolis that has never seen a curly-headed, ginger-bearded Irishman before. Maybe I just need to lop off all my hair and shave for once. Perhaps that is just what I will do.


Sarah said...

Keith! Oh how I laughed while reading your blog...completely inappropriate I realize, since you are being poked and laughed at all day but that was FANTASTIC!! I am a FPCV, about to recieve my invite for Central America and have been checking out blogs from that area to keep from going nutz! When I saw a China blog I just couldn't resist checking it out! It reminded me of when I did some aid relief in Indonesia. Every day in Jakarta there was some 15-20 people who would follow us around. Some were beggers but others were wealthy landowners trying to get a rich American wife. There was also this horrid rooster who loved to peck at my heels. Wherever we went we created a stir. Some would throw pieces of glass wrapped in wire at us and others would shout and sing.... There is just no way that I, a 5'9 blond, and my other American counterparts could escape notice in Asia! I smell what your stepping in! Good luck and thank you for that very entertaining blog!
Sarah Eastburn

Anonymous said...

Props to you, Keith. I've handled the attention gracefully for months, my recent inner monologues have resembled violent celeb/paparazzi airport incidents. see you soon, pengyou!