Thursday, February 26, 2009

A couple of Laowai walk into a bar...

Both Richard and I have been surprised by the relatively few number of foreigners we've seen on this trip. In Beijing and Shanghai, they - we - are numerous, and you'd think there would be a fair number in major cities like Chongqing and Chengdu, but we went days where we were the only foreigners in sight. Even at huge tourist attractions like the Stone Forest. Global economic downturn? Off-season timing? Maybe it has more to do with how we travel - e.g., not in a tour group. But we've walked into places where our very presence created consternation among the locals.

Take the photo above. That was in a Chengdu restaurant not far away from a famous xiao chi ("small dishes") place noted in all the guidebooks. The famous joint had already closed for the night (Chengdu and Chongqing don't seem to be late night cities like Beijing and Shanghai), and we just got in under the wire at this place. The group sitting at the table, mostly restaurant staff, gaped at us. Covertly and not so covertly got out their cellphones and started taking photos. Fair is fair, I thought, so I got out my camera and took theirs.

Back in the day, this kind of reaction was not unusual. Except for in Beijing, where Beijingers even then had a certain sangfroid about the few barbarians in their midst, you were always stared at. Though not with giggles, usually. With intense, close-up appraisals, as if you were some form of space alien just beamed down to their planet. Not threatening aliens, just bizarre lifeforms requiring scrutiny.

Part of it was that we were young and on our own, out on the streets and on public buses and second-class trains and were therefore accessible, unlike the few mostly elderly groups of tourists who were generally isolated from the public, ferried about in mini-buses, fed in private dining rooms. No, we wandered around and got lost and poked our noses into places. It was intense everywhere, but the first place it felt really over the top was in Inner Mongolia, which had only recently been opened to "foreign guests." A guy on a bike saw us walking down the street in Hohhot, wondering about the piles of winter cabbage heaped on the sidewalks, did a double-take, spinning his neck around like Linda Blair in the Exorcist and literally fell off his bike. We went into an empty store that sold about three things - it was bare cement, hardly lit, a couple shelves and a counter - but they had these nifty brass hand scales to weigh herbs (I still have mine, hanging from a beam in my house). We'd been in there all of five minutes when the crowds started showing up. And I mean "crowds." A hundred people? Two? They pushed into the store, four to six people deep, just to get a close look at the aliens. The same thing happened during Spring Festival in Kunming. I have photos of this, of people surrounding Paul, surrounding me, standing inches away, hands clasped behind their backs, staring.

Or...speaking of Chengdu...I had to use a toilet. We were in a public park. I couldn't tell you which one; like every other city I'd seen back then in China, Chengdu has changed beyond recognition. This was a simple brick building with troughs and low walls maybe one foot high dividing them up, no doors, so there was no real privacy. No electricity that I recall, the light provided by a few ventilation windows up high on the walls. In spite of this, I remember a woman squatting there, doing her business, reading the paper.

When I walked in, the women there, three or four, stared. Just curious. They'd never seen somebody like me do this before.

This got to be kind of stressful after a while. Sometimes I just wanted to be anonymous, to disappear, but that wasn't possible. What made it particularly hard at times was the way that you couldn't just be you. Instead you were half-human, half-symbol, representing something much bigger than yourself. I felt this particularly when giving lectures at colleges in Beijing, and during my teaching tenure. I was the first American, or one of the first, that these people had ever met. I remember one day, all fired up, I gave a lecture about, I dunno, the Bill of Rights and the importance of the rule of law - I'd been inspired by an article I'd read written by Arthur Miller, who had traveled in China earlier that year. The students seemed interested in my first class, so I repeated it for the second two. Afterward, I was horrified by what I'd done. The Bill of Rights? The Rule of Law? I'm talking about this stuff in China?! It wasn't so much that I might get in trouble as the trouble I worried about causing others; that, and I barely remembered high school civics, so who was I to talk about such things?

On the other hand, other students I'd met, students of Paul's parents, quoted Thomas Jefferson at me, which was pretty disorienting too (I wrote a little more about this a few years ago).

China has changed so much so quickly that I still get disoriented these days, but over different things.

For example: a few nights ago, we went to a gay bar. I've been to plenty of gay bars and discos in my life; that's what artsy chicks of my generation and place of upbringing did. But an above-ground gay scene in China - I knew that it existed but was still bemused by it all. Ear-splitting dance music, disco ball, and drag show. And definitely one of those places where a couple of laowai walking in turned heads, big-time. Even one of the drag performers, a very cute young man wearing a gold lamé Speedo and gold cape broke character and winked at me. Interestingly the bar's patrons were both gay and lesbian, with groups of seemingly straight couples as well, out for a little cultural tourism and slightly transgressive fun.

In a couple of days I'll be heading up to Xinjiang, to a place where I'm told they are not at all used to seeing foreigners. I'm expecting stares, and that's okay. Once again, I'm giving a lecture, which makes me kind of nervous. Not about the rule of law or anything like that, mostly about my home state, California and former industry (film & TV). Like I'm some kind of expert, which I'm not. Just a wandering alien with an odd knack for showing up in unexpected places.

No comments: