One December evening, seated in my meat locker of a living room with a space heater tilted up towards my rump, I came across a lesson entitled "Annoyances in China: Protect Yourself." I downloaded it and duly committed Mr. Melnyk's phrases to memory.
Are you trying to cheat me?
Do I look like some kind of idiot?
Don't bother me!
Why are you following me?
Stop following me!
Don't touch me!
These are not the sorts of expressions one learns in elementary German or Spanish, but they have served me well thus far in China. People do bother foreigners here: they stare at them, follow them, and on a couple of occasions, complete strangers have manhandled me in ways that have made my copious Western body hair stand on end. So, armed with some foreknowledge of their utility, I started belting these phrases out to no one, while my next-door neighbors - who are always audible through the crumbling wall that divides our two apartments - probably wondered whether I was finally suffering my first schizophrenic break.
Don't bother me! Don't touch me! Piss off! I barked, growing secretly eager for an opportunity to put those words to use. I wouldn't have to wait long, of course. Scarcely a day goes by in Nanchong without some sort of insane encounter on the street. But testosterone and adrenaline make for a nasty cocktail, and when those epic confrontations finally came, I found that my remedial tough guy Chinese was nowhere to be found, because all words had vanished from my mind but one: why?
A few weeks after my lesson with Mr. Melnyk, I was eating a bowl of gourmet ramen at the Muslim noodle joint next to the old campus. Two men in their mid-forties sat down across from me and stared with such intensity that I could see their black eyes reflected in the layer of oil floating on the surface of my noodle broth. I did what I usually do in those situations: I buried my face in my noodles and didn't look up. I ate quickly and called for the check. But when I made my way out to the street, the two men followed me. One of them caught me by the arm and asked me where I was going.
"I'm going home," I said, and walked in the opposite direction.
The other man grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me back towards him.
"Come with us," he said. "We'll take you home."
I jerked free of his grip and turned to look him and his accomplice in the eyes. They were smiling in a non-threatening way, but when I turned to walk away, one of the men started yanking at the sleeve of my suitcoat, the beloved 200 kuai suitcoat that I bought two years ago from a tailor in Hangzhou and have worn every day since. I am a tolerant man, perhaps even a pacifist, but if there is a short road to a foreigner's fist in your face, it runs through the sleeve of his fitted Hangzhou suitcoat.
"Where are you going?" shouted the man. "Come with us! We'll take you home!"
By then we were tangled up in the middle of a four-lane road, the gusts of passing cars jostling us in both directions at once. The two men were hanging onto my suitcoat and crowds were forming on both sides of the street to observe the spectacle.
"No. I'm not going with you," I hissed through clenched teeth. My hands were shaking. "I'm taking the bus."
I pointed across the street, where the last school bus of the evening was pulling out onto the main road. I tried to swat the men away and make a run for it, but they held fast.
There were phrases I had learned for just this kind of situation - don't touch me! piss off! - but they had vanished. All that remained was the kind of seething male rage that leads men to do idiotic things. The only words that I could muster were wei shenme: why?
Luckily, a passing motorcycle almost clipped us and I was able to break free. When one of the men reached after me, I smacked his hand away. Then I dashed between a Toyotavan and an oncoming taxi, flagged down the bus, and hoisted myself aboard. From the window, I could see the two men standing in the middle of the road, looking baffled and insulted, watching me as I glided past. I hid my face behind a book and sat there for a long time without reading it. After a while, I was surprised to find myself feeling somewhat guilty about the whole thing. Perhaps, after all, they were just offering me a ride home.
I decided to beef up a bit in the weeks that followed. I started doing push-ups in my living room and pull-ups on the rusty bars down in the mudpit behind the stadium. There was no point in jogging, because where I live it is a hazard to one's health.
A few months passed. My understanding of the language improved, but Chinese crowd dynamics continued to elude me. Going out in public remained a crap shoot. There were often friendly encounters, or innocuous ones. There was also a vast gray area of hah-loos that might have been well-meant or mocking - it was impossible to tell. I never quite felt comfortable outside of my apartment, knowing that any second some anonymous arm could yank me out of the crowd and things could turn very weird indeed.
And then, the night before I left for Yunnan Province, it happened: Round Two. Pan Da vs. Nanchong - fight! I was downtown, it was late in the evening. Up and down the street, the red Spring Festival lanterns had just switched on and the night began to feel oddly Christmassy. I swung by my usual shop to buy a pack of Pandas. I was handing a fistful of kuai to the cashier when someone seized my free arm from behind and started pulling. The cashier reached for my money, but the man had already succeeded in dragging me halfway out the door. I whirled around to see who my assailant was this time: a squat, oily man in his mid-forties. He was yanking me by the sleeve of my field jacket and absurdly, because my old Pumas no longer had any traction to their soles, I was sliding across the linoleum floor. I smacked the man's arm away and shouted wei shenme? Why? The shopkeepers were still standing behind the counter, watching with great interest, and already a small crowd had materialized just outside the door.
"What are you doing right now?" barked the man.
"I'm trying to buy cigarettes. Who are you?"
"Are you working right now?" he asked.
"Let's go!" he shouted, and once again grabbed my arm and started dragging me, grunting and puffing, hunched and tromping towards the street with my sleeve stretched tight across his back, like Chinese Sisyphus lugging a laowai up the side of a mountain.
By then, I was an unthinking beast. Six months of heckling, of shouted hah-loos and murmured laowais, and now this - this man had finally blown my head gasket. I was enraged. I wanted to punch indiscriminately. But, to my credit I suppose, I simply swatted his arm away once more, turned around, and handed ten kuai to the cashier. She slid my pack of Pandas across the counter without a word. The man, crestfallen, slinked outside and waited for me in the street, where the crowd that had assembled for the impending throw-down was slowly beginning to disperse.
As I came out of the shop, the man produced a cigarette and thrust it in front of my mouth.
"No," I said. "Wo bu chou yan."
This meant two things: I don't smoke in general, and I don't want to smoke right now, both of which were obvious lies, as my next act was to light up one of my own cigarettes and throw myself into the nearest vacant taxi. It was the harshest insult I could level given the circumstances. To deny a man's cigarette is a pretty severe slight in this country. I didn't want to fight, or even to belittle the man. I simply wanted to send the message that grabbing a stranger by the sleeve and dragging him out the door is not a wise thing to do; no sane Chinese person would even think of doing it to another Chinese person, so why do it to a foreigner? And yet, as the cab sputtered away from the man standing there, mouth agape, at the curb, I was once again assailed by guilt. Perhaps the poor guy, after all, had just wanted to get me drunk.
These sorts of encounters are not common, which is why I have written about them. They stand out, is all. Over the course of eight months, I have been physically harassed three or four times, which isn't all that bad considering the amount of attention I attract everywhere I go.
Most of that attention is overwhelmingly positive. The Chinese people, generally, will bend every which way to make sure that I get where I'm trying to go, and that I get there safely and on time. I have been lavished with kindness that I cannot possibly repay, both because I am unused to such hospitality in the West, and because the Chinese refuse to accept anything in return. It is nothing, they will say, and they mean it. And how could I repay China for the countless dinners, for the too many drinks, for the companionship and compassion with which most of the people here have welcomed me? I couldn't begin to. I am a volunteer and I don't have the do-re-mi to return what I owe to this country.
And yet the kindness, too, is special treatment. Nobody buys the peasants dinner. I am a foreigner, so for good or for ill, I am treated like a foreigner. After a while, even kindness becomes exhausting.
A student once asked me what Chinese people should call "my people." Should I call your people laowai, she asked, or waiguoren (foreigner), or waiguo pengyou (foreign friend), or what? My answer surprised her and me alike: I told her that I'd rather nobody called me anything. It surprised her, perhaps, because it was unthinkable that my motley crew of golden-haired, tattooed, multicolored people should go without a label. And it surprised me because, up until that moment, I hadn't realized that it wasn't the various Chinese words for foreigner that irked me, but the fact that those words were spoken at all.
It is naive to expect that the Chinese will treat me, a foreigner, precisely the same way they would treat a Chinese shish-kebab vendor or a Chinese shopkeeper or a Chinese salaryman. We are too new, and China is too complex for that. But all special treatment - whether it is a cat call or a free shot of Crown Royal from a complete stranger - amounts, in the foreigner's mind, to the same thing: you are a foreigner, you are different. That sentiment can seem like a warm welcome, or it can feel like a boot in the ass.
A laowai's life is a dizzying collage of wonderful and horrific moments. Immigrants the world over experience the heights of human kindness and the depths of human fear and ignorance. There is very little in between. In the day to day life of a laowai, one day will scarcely resemble the next. There are wonderful days and terrible days, up days and down days - like the word lǎowài itself: a rising tone, a falling tone.
But the situation is not hopeless. I am reminded of a quote from the great Chinese author Lu Xun, a quote that has never been dearer to me than it is right now, as I type it:
Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.
The Peace Corps does not build houses in China. The Chinese are perfectly good at doing that for themselves. I wouldn't know where to begin with the construction of a 72-story residential megaplex anyhow. But lest one come to doubt the work that the volunteers are doing in this country, consider that we, in many ways, are the first ones to walk these roads. Most of the locals I talk to in Nanchong - a city of some 700,000 people - have never spoken with a foreigner before. For most of the shopkeepers and the barbers, the taxi drivers and the bus drivers, even for my college students and my fellow professors, I am the first contact they have ever had with that long feared, often maligned, occasionally admired and envied specter of The West. I am an English teacher, but that is only my part-time job. My real job is to make every first impression a positive one, and almost all of my interactions in this country are a first impression.
Among the people I talk to on a daily basis, taxi drivers are by far and away the most likely to have met a foreigner before. The other night, on the way home from Chongqing, the cabbie told me that my Chinese was very bang. But as usual, the more I spoke, the more sparse were his compliments, until by the end of the ride, I had been downgraded to a modest "not bad."
He mentioned that he'd met a foreigner before, that he used to drive the guy to school every so often.
"As far as I could tell," said the cabbie, "the foreigner could only speak three words of Chinese: Southwest Petroleum University."
The cabbie laughed and shook his head.
"He wasn't like you. Your Chinese is not too bad. This foreigner lived here for three years - three years! - and he couldn't say or understand anything. Just Southwest Petroleum University."
He chuckled and blared his horn at an onrushing gas tanker.
"Anyway," he said, "how many years have you been here?"
"About eight months," I said.
"Eight years," he said flatly.
"No, eight months."
"Eight months?" He looked me over in the rearview mirror. "Eight months! Yes, your Chinese is really not too bad for only eight months."
And it's really not that good, either. I don't study hard enough to speak good Chinese. But I do talk to people whenever I get the chance - usually old, poor people: amidst all the other changes they have seen in their lifetimes, a foreigner stumbling through their rice paddy isn't really all that surprising. But I'm not using them for language lessons. I'm not out to be the next Da Shan. I'm shooting for something a whole lot less ambitious. I'm hoping that by walking the same road over and over again, by eating the same ramen noodles at the same grimy hole in the wall every day, by joking with all the cabbies that drive me home at odd hours of the night, by doing all of these small things every day for two years and two months - I am hoping that the next volunteer who comes to Nanchong, or maybe the one after that, or the one after that, will have an easier time of it than I do in the year 2010, that he'll hop in a cab on a baijiu-soaked Friday night and the cabbie will say, "Yeah, I met a foreigner like you once. His Chinese wasn't too bad." He'll offer the foreigner a cigarette and the foreigner will politely stick it behind his ear. "Not as good as yours, of course. But not too bad."