Wai-Gui-Ren (Foreigner)

“Wai Gui Ren.”
Since learning the word for “foreigner”, I’ve heard it pop out of the background almost as often as I have time to forget about it. It catches your attention like hearing your own name does.
In Jingzhou, I was struck by the fact that the entire city essentially contained just one race. This was especially easy to notice having come straight from NYC, a city as full of diversity as China is lacking.
At first it was hard to ignore all the stares, and it was hard to imagine how we could be that interesting. But as we began to make some local friends, I didn’t think about my own strangeness as much. Our friend Phillip stuck by our side to teach us a few Chinese phrases and my attention turned to that project.
“Boo yoa La” we practiced in awkwardly tone-less accents.
“Yes.” “No.” I could never tell whether Phillip would approve or not. My ears just weren’t tuned to observe the differences Phillip could observe in our words. What did he mean by a high tone? I thought I said it that way?
Phillip stuck by our side and persisted with our project. Perhaps less people stared when we had a local Chinese person by our side, as if he protected and shielded us from onlookers. It was fun having a friend help us jump over the language wall, even when we couldn’t catch on to Chinese. Often times we simply had Phillip translate for us. For example, Phillip helped us to tell our favorite “bubble-tea” vendor how much we appreciated her patience with us each day.

Shanghai is a bit different. First of all, there are quite a few foreigners roaming around the touristy city, so we hold a little bit less attention as we ride the subway or walk around the super market. On the other hand…our Chinese speaking friends are far far away, and we are left to fend for ourselves when the cameras do come out. Yesterday I caught two different people photographing me with their cell phones within just one hour. Some of the onlookers try to be discrete, but these two gentlemen seemed to think that my lack of understanding for their language made them invisible in some way.

It is strange…being so strange.

Despite our inability to tap Phillip on the shoulder and ask him what to say, Shanghai is an easier place to get around as a foreigner than Jingzhou was. Jingzhou represented the lowest tier of Cina’s status as a developing country, and therefore, it offered the most culture shock. The outdoor latrines emptied directly into the river and there were rarely garbage cans in sight: just piles of rotting vegetables and plastic containers. When we saw a row of dilapidated little houses with roofs that didn’t look strong enough for the approaching winter we asked Phillip, “Is this a poor part of town? Are the residents of these houses poor?” Phillip answered, “No.” He explained that the poor people lived in the country. These people could not be considered poor.

This opened my eyes a bit. Our friends’ apartment was a small one, but was fairly similar to a Western apartment, complete with a sit-down, indoor toilet. It wasn’t until our conversation with Phillip that I realized that this was not the case for many Jingzhou residents.

One of the other foreign teachers at the Jingzhou University explained it this way: China is considered a developing country, but within that country, you will find three different tiers of development. Some areas will look more like third world areas while others will look not so far behind America. Now that I’ve seen Shanghai, I understand what she meant. Shanghai has trash cans and clean streets. It has a few less make-shift, three-wheeled trucks and a little more organization on the streets. There are street lights to keep traffic less hectic and cross-walks to offer a safe way to cross the street. There are fewer cars that decide to drive on the sidewalk, and so on.

As we walked through the clean streets of Shanghai and wove in and out of the fancy stores, I felt grateful for our time in Jingzhou. There is no way I could have understood this country without experiencing it. Shanghai is just a bizarrely constructed city full of whimsical architecture if I have no context in which to understand it. Now I realize what parts of Shanghai represent traditional China and what parts represent a forward motion: an attempt to restructure old practices.
The people of Jingzhou bragged about Shanghai. They wanted to come with us on our visit to the breath-taking and massive city. But, I wish they knew how wildly wonderful their own city is. It is so unlike America, and for that reason, it shocked me and fascinated me. Every traveler craves that just a little bit.

If I tell you how gross I thought the non-toilet holes in the ground were or how disturbing I thought the meat hanging on the clothes lines were…don’t believe me entirely. I am a traveler. I left America in part to be shocked, and in part to learn from places that differ from my home.

And I have learned a lot…
I will share about that later…


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