Saturday, February 12, 2005

When a Shirt is not a Shirt...

Via Peking Duck I was directed to a hilarious, scabrous rant and string of responses over at the Laowai Monologues, the blogged adventures of an American teaching English in an isolated provincial city, which, if Hank's posts are any indication, is the definition of "Chinese backwater." Moreover, after years of living and teaching in China, Hank has reached the point of near meltdown, absolutely frustrated, fed-up, over and done with it all...

I can relate. It only took me about 6 months in 1979/80 Beijing to reach a similar point. In my defense, I was really young, and it was extremely difficult to make a home for oneself as a foreigner in China back then, even in the capital. You could not have easy friendships with Chinese, not really. A close association with a foreigner was risky for them. Oh, on some days it was more okay than others; at the time the Chinese leadership was engaged in debate about just how open they wanted China to be, a debate which swung between two extremes at a dizzyingly rapid pace. But one thing I had known at my young age was that once the door was opened, the outside world was coming in, and you couldn't pick and choose which parts of it could cross the threshold. My little delegation from the United Federation of Planets violated the Non-interference Directive just by being there; we'd brought the contamination of our culture along, and it would spread just as surely as would any hearty virus.

My own meltdown came towards the end of my teaching term in Beijing. Money had been a constant concern, due to our ambiguous status as "Junior Foreign Experts." We weren't exactly official, hadn't signed a contract; we were too young to be full-fledged "Foreign Experts" (i.e., foreign teachers), which meant we received about a quarter of the pay as a typical foreign teacher in Beijing and that nobody was sure how to treat us. Foreigners at the time were routinely charged at an inflated rate many times higher than Chinese, and in fact, there were two systems of currency that made this difference even more explicit. Foreign Experts and foreign students generally received lower rates than plain old, presumably rich, foreign tourists.

As unofficial "junior foreign experts," we had our little school badges identifying us as teachers, and a letter written by one of our school's cadres identifying us as such, but at times I recall my China stay as one long haggle, trying to avoid those tourist prices. I had to make that money last through a month of travel, a stay in Hong Kong and an airplane ticket home.

Anyway, I finally decided to part with some Renmin Bi from my teaching earnings and have a few shirts made at the Friendship Store. I'd found a beautiful bolt of blue silk fabric that I thought would make a lovely dress shirt. As an afterthought, I'd purchased some rough, raw silk fabric for a second shirt, something more casual. I'd done a little drawing that showed what I wanted, had gone over it very carefully with the store clerk, and I'd thought I'd communicated clearly.

Regardless, a few weeks later, what I got was exactly what I hadn't wanted - the same old typical Chinese style that I'd been trying to avoid.

The dressing room of the Friendship Store was the scene of my meltdown. This wasn't what I wanted! I'd TOLD them what I wanted! I wasn't going to pay for this! I wanted my money back! I'M SO SICK OF THIS PLACE AND THIS SHIT!

Afterwards I felt foolish and embarrassed for having made a scene, even as I told myself that well, it was what they deserved for not doing what I'd asked for, what I'd wanted.

Stuff like this is never about what it's about. It's about all the other frustrations , the loneliness, the isolation. About being in a place where you could never just be, where you were always seen as a foreigner, as an outsider, as representative of something far bigger than your own small self and your petty concerns.

As for the shirts, the fancy one in the beautiful blue silk that was going to be my present to myself, the one that wasn't what I'd wanted, that one I gave to Paul's mom because I couldn't stand to look at it. The other, a typical Chinese style in rough, natural fabric, I happily wore for years.

5 comments:

JR said...

Is it me or do you look like Janeane Garofalo? And I think she is becoming a liberal icon.

Other Lisa said...

Dear JR, I dunno, maybe a little. I deleted that photo because it didn't go with the post I ended up writing, but I'll put up a more contemporary photo soon...thanks for writing!

Other Lisa said...

p.s. I mean the photo I had up briefly of me and a buddy at Simatai a couple years ago...

Anonymous said...

Hey Lisa!
Yeah, well you know it was a bad day, shouldn't have wrote about it, blah blah and blah, but I'm glad you pointed out the frustration that you felt too. Yeah, I took the posting down--thought it was a little too strong, and I left an explanation for doing so--too raw and too real for some folks, but ha! don't worry bad days come and bad days go, just like the good ones! Love your site!
Hank
More Laowai Monologues

Other Lisa said...

Hey Hank, great to hear from you! I've really been enjoying your site - don't know how you've done it (both the blog and the experience) as long as you have, but I think China is just one of those places. I never got over it, and when I finally did go back, it felt like home...really!

If you should wander back here, would love to know how you accessed my site, cause I think blogspot is pretty well blocked in China, right? Would love to tell some friends in PRC how they could have a look...

Stay warm! (and boy do I relate to that topic too...in the days before central heating...)