If I walk briskly, it takes me about half an hour to get from my apartment to the park downtown. This afternoon, I decided to conduct an experiment. For curiosity's sake, I decided to walk to the park and count my hecklers along the way. I made a point of not counting gawks, stares or leers; nor did I count bursts of laughter, or points, or people following me in the streets. I only counted HAH-LOOs and variations on the word "foreigner" - laowai, waiguoren, and the dreaded yang guizi: foreign devil.
During my half-hour walk to the park, I was heckled 33 times - a little over once a minute. When I'm out and about in Nanchong, I tend to take side streets to avoid being heckled, so for the most part, I wasn't walking on the overcrowded thoroughfares where heckling is the worst. China is a noisy place, so between the traffic and the earthmovers and the jackhammers, I couldn't even hear most of what was being shouted at me. Nevertheless, I counted 33 different hecklers in about 30 minutes of walking. This afternoon was not an anomaly. It wasn't even a particularly unpleasant walk. I've enjoyed much worse. I imagine, if someone were to average my daily heckler ratio, it would come out to something like one heckler per minute. That seems about right.
My hecklers don't know me. They aren't friends, or students, or anyone I have ever met. They are complete strangers. They are not children, as you might expect, or the elderly, who should be the most startled by my presence. My hecklers are college kids, well-off twentysomethings, and middle-aged salarymen - in short, full-grown adults who should know enough about the world to know better than to heckle another human being. The heckling is not friendly. A HAH-LOO is not a hello. Here, it is almost always a taunt. The word laowai, in my town, is not gasped with astonishment as it is in the countryside. There are enough foreigners in Nanchong that our presence is no longer altogether surprising. Rather, the word is uttered with a kind of disdain. Foreigner. Outsider. Laowai. I cannot think of a more unpleasant word in the Chinese language. A slow, rising tone followed by a fast, striking tone. Lao-WAI.
I already had some experience in the field of being a laowai before coming to China, so I wasn't entirely unprepared. I lived for a year in the suburbs of Daegu, South Korea. The people of Daegu were fairly familiar with foreigners, and had only just started to begin viewing them as more threat than novelty. I was heckled in Daegu fairly consistently, but not as often as I am here. My hecklers were generally elementary school kids, whose taunts were more cute than infuriating. Living a normal life in Daegu was something of a challenge, but nothing I couldn't get around by shaving regularly, dying my hair black, and sunbathing on the roof of my apartment.
My friend Jared lived in a somewhat rural Chinese town named Xiaoshan, just outside of Hangzhou. When I visited him several years ago, my presence was just as astonishing to the locals as it must be to the people of Nanchong, but I never felt as though I was being harassed. I stayed there a month and was never bothered unduly. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with smiles and hellos, but they weren't smirks or HAH-LOOs, if that makes any sense. The number of foreigners per capita wasn't any greater in Xiaoshan than it is here, but the people, for whatever reason, seemed more open and less threatened by us.
Just last week, I paid a visit to my friends in Chengdu - a big city but not a terrifically diverse one, some two hours away from Nanchong. Over the course of three days that I mostly spent outside, I was heckled exactly once, by a drunk motorcycle driver whose friends promptly told him to shut up. Otherwise, the fact that I was a foreigner was not commented on by anyone I met. I was at first startled by my anonymity, then relieved. I was ecstatically happy during my weekend in Chengdu. I could live there. But the moment I stepped off the bus in Nanchong, I was heckled all the way down the street until I was finally able to throw myself into the back of a cab, and when the cabby dropped me off at the campus gate, college students heckled me all the way home.
I don't mention all this as a point of criticism. Xenophobia is a bald fact of my existence, and I understand to some extent why it exists. But it is a fact that I struggle with. How am I to interpret it? How can I ignore it? How can I use it to my advantage? I am heckled wherever I go. The more language I learn, the more dismayed I am. I have, on a number of occasions, been called a monkey. The last time I took a shared taxi, the passenger in front protested because the driver was dropping off the foreigner before the other Chinese passengers. I am no longer fazed by these experiences, just startled by the frequency with which they occur, and the fact that they still happen. I am aware that other volunteers elsewhere in the world have it considerably worse, living in places where the color of their skin incites violence. But foreigners are not quite welcome in Nanchong City, Sichuan Province, and the negative attention is not trivial by any means. It is like an electric shock. The experience itself is not traumatic, but it is extremely unpleasant, unpleasant enough to distract me from the things I would like to be doing to help my community. And it does not fade with time. If anything, I have come to anticipate the shock, which makes the shock even worse when it comes. One of my fellow laowais lived in Chengdu for seven years and only recently came to Nanchong to be with his wife and child. He struggles with life here. He loved it in Chengdu, but is visibly wearing at the seams in Nanchong. Once the kid's grown up enough, he told me, we're out of here.
By now, I have traveled to many parts of China, and each trip has been a welcome respite from my daily life in Nanchong. I have visited some of the world's largest metropolises and some of China's most rural backwaters, and nowhere has the harassment been so intense as it is in the city in which I live. I won't speculate as to the reasons why, because I realize now that I can never hope to understand them. But of course, I signed up for all this. I joined such-and-such volunteer organization because I knew it would be difficult, and it has proven to be difficult. I wouldn't have it any other way. And in writing all this, I am not angry, or depressed, or pessimistic. I am as hopeful and cross-eyed idealistic as I have ever been. I want China to open its eyes to the rest of the world, rather than curling up into the fetal position of itself. This, really, is the reason why I came here. China must not remain a rock or an island. To my mind, there is almost nothing more vital to the future of humanity than making sure China becomes a part of the world. And it starts here in the hintergrund. In a sense, it starts in Nanchong.
My parents can vouch for this: as a young child, when I was feeling sulky, I used to bang my head against the bedroom wall until someone came in to stop me. Now, at 27, I am banging my head against the Great Wall. This is Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But I can do nothing else at this point. I have a full year left to go. So I will go outside with my idiotic smile and I will buy toilet paper. A six-ton jumbo economy pack of toilet paper. And people will point and laugh and shout nasty things as I pass. Let them. But it is my hope that one day, after I've walked by enough, after they've run out of things to shout at me, these people will arrive at the realization that this laowai is a human being who shits, who eats and shits just like us, who has emotions just like us, who doesn't like being shouted at when he's walking home with a six-ton jumbo economy pack of toilet paper. And then the snowball of logic will roll. Freedom is the freedom to say that 2 + 2 = 4. All else shall follow.