In March of 2011, I boarded a plane at JFK airport and flew to China. I spent the next three months studying Chinese at Liaocheng University, and the next two traveling on my own. During my senior of college, I compiled stories from my experiences in China for my senior writing portfolio. The following is an excerpt from that portfolio, and describes the very beginning of my trip.
The plane ride. It’s long but I get to watch movies. I don’t know whether or not I sleep because the same thoughts I have in my head invade my dreams. I make it to a hostel. Three days in Beijing partying with a sassy grad student and three dudes from England. One of the guys shares my name, as well as my fashion sense: rolled up jeans, understated shoes, a plaid shirt, and thick rimmed glasses. We order Peking Duck and discuss the exorbitant amount of ‘massage parlors’ in the vicinity of our hostel. We’re young and rich and in Beijing, the wildest city in the world. We stay out all night in the Sanlitun bar district, and nibble on lamb kebabs at dawn.
Sometime around noon on Sunday, my teacher Mr. Li arrives in the parlor of my hostel. He approaches the first white dude he sees imploring, “Chris?”
“Hello!” I say, “I’m Chris’ It’s nice to meet you.”
A cab ride. We eat dinner at the train station, and he offers to buy me a beer. I like the idea, but beer doesn’t agree with me anymore; not after three days of using jet-lag to my advantage. A man in an orange jumpsuit with cuffs around his wrists and ankles sits latched to a nearby table while his security detail fetches their meals. They hunch over their bowls, slirping their soup and conversing like old friends.
Mr. Li insists that we carry my backpack together—each of us manning a strap. How Confucian! How Chinese! I think, equating myself to something of an expert. On the train, a woman offers to trade her bottom bunk with me, so that I don’t have to climb the the three feet to lie down. I don’t know whether to be insulted or thankful, but before I can decide she springs upward and lands softly on her hip with a grin. I clap my hands together, bow my head, and chant, “xie xie.” Thank you. I lie down on my bottom bunk and fall asleep in minutes
Another cab ride. It’s dark outside. I see lots of neon, and I think Typical Chinese City. We drive past a massive gate that must be a hundred yards long, and thirty feet tall, made up of a series of concrete columns with a ten foot wide connector along the top. “The gate!” says Mr. Li. “The biggest gate in China, uh, for school, uh, for a school.” I don’t know want to believe him. There’s no way this little po-dunk school has the biggest gate of any school in China. But then again, I’ve had enough experiences, heard enough stories, to know that in 21st Century China, image is everything, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the school administrators thought a huge fucking gate would help put their little school on the map.
We drive past the gate and arrive at East Campus, where Mr. Li tells me all the international students will be living. “How many of us are there,” I ask.
“About, uh, twenty. All Korean.”
“Are they here now?”
“Uh, some are here, but your uh, your uh…”
“Roommates! “Your roommates are not here.”
The hallway in my apartment building is cold and dirty concrete, and it smells like garbage. The apartments are all white walls with hard white-tile flooring. A layer of grey dust coats every surface in every room. There are three double rooms; a common area with couches and a TV; a kitchen with a two burner propane range, a fridge, and a water cooler. In the bathroom are two stalls, one with an Asian style squatter toilette, and one with a porcelain throne. I don’t know whether to be happy about the presence of a western toilette, or disappointed. Mr. Li says goodnight, and I flop on to my bed, forgetting that the Chinese like their mattresses a good deal harder than us cushy Americans. I fall asleep in minutes.
Laowai. Lao, meaning old, and wai meaning foreign, translates literally (and rather innocuously) to old foreigner. In both spoken and written Mandarin, the word laowai serves as shorthand, a colloquialism; a slur?
The second sylable, wai, bears the fourth tone, somehow the most unforgiving tone, as well as the easiest to remember. It cuts downward, snips the end of the word off, jabs an elbow in the nose—laoWAI! When children on the backs of bycicles saw my bulky frame weaving through traffic, they cried, “Mama! Laowai!.”
Sure, they say that most Chinese people who use the word never mean it in a derogatory sense; but hasn’t it only been within my short lifetime that these people first saw men and women with curly hair and freckled arms and legs? Weren’t those old men on the street corner who spent their retired hours playing cards and keeping birds; who wear the old Mao caps and navy blue jackets; who are the patriarchs of their respective families — were they not once taught to fear and to hate me, and my Western, “liberal arts” education? Were they wary of what I might tell people back home? Did they think I looked down on them?
The term my teachers taught me for foreigner, waiguoren, translates literally, to foreign country person. It’s easy to imagine why the powers-that-be prefer this more rational translation, and why laowai never makes an appearance in Chinese Language textbooks; but there remains reason enough for Chinese nationals with genuine affection for foreigners to uphold the use of laowai. The first syllable lao, is also used in laoshi, the Chinese word for teacher. In this case, lao presumably falls in accordance with a Confucian reverence for the experienced and wise. Laopengyou serves as a common term of endearment between acquaintances, just as its translation, old friend, occupies the same connotation in English.