Goodbyes in Chenxi

I will leave Chenxi tomorrow.

I’ve always known that my life and work in this relatively small Chinese town has had a finite quality to it—no matter how much of an affect I perceive myself making on the students, the residents, and the authorities of this cog in the Great Red Machine, I am often forced to remind myself that life in Chenxi will continue to move at a fairly undisturbed pace when I leave. When my inner waijiao gets the better of me though, I picture my absence from this western Hunan community to be a noticeable one: “Where did that strangely-dressed laowai go?”; “Did the foreigner finally get that we were ripping him off?”; “Who is going to entertain my two year-old now that the foreign teacher is gone?” Within a few months, it is likely that the majority of Chenxiren will regard me as just another in a line of similarly-strange presences from the Western world. But, then there are a few who I know will miss me as much as I do them.

♦♦♦

“Okay, you’re buying tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and garlic. That’ll be ¥8 kuai, all together.”

To appear more confident, the vendor at my more regular wet market straightens his shoulders whenever he talks to me. When he gets his haircut every other month, it’s hard to imagine such a handsome man selling eggplants all day. But, he seems happy with his job and it’s no wonder—he practically has a monopoly on good produce.

“You don’t want eggs today?” he asked as he motioned to the crates of chicken eggs near his table. “You usually buy eggs.”

“No, I don’t need them today,” I responded. “Did you know that I will return home on Friday?”

“Oh, to see your family?”

“Yes. I will live there for about three months.”

“And then you will return to Chenxi to start a new semester?”

My stomach twisted upwards. Our goodbye suddenly had the potential to become very awkward.

“No,” I said. “I will return to China, but I will go to Jiangsu University to teach English.”

“Mm,” the vendor nodded. “Jiangsu is very rich. It’s not like Chenxi. You’ll be happier there.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because Jiangsu has many foreigners. Many Chenxi people are very rude.”

“But you’re not rude,” I reassured him. “You’re my good friend.”

The vendor laughed, his tense upper-shoulders melted into their proper place. He handed me my many-colored variety of vegetable bags.

“A gift,” he said. “Have a good journey.”

♦♦♦

“You’re leaving the day after tomorrow, right?”

The barbell was tickling my chest as I lowered it for my final repetition. The owner of Chenxi’s small fitness club recently appointed himself as my personal trainer, on top of giving me a free membership. His biceps are comically bloated, most likely due to the pharmacy of supplements he dips into after each daily, three-hour workout.

“Right,” I said I rested the bar on the weight bench. “I’ll go to Changsha first and then I’ll fly to America.”

“Which state will you go to?” the trainer asked as he began to add more weight to the barbell.

“My mother and father live in Minnesota,” I replied as I wiped away the sweat from my forehead. “So, I’ll also live in Minnesota.”

The trainer nodded and secured the final 5kg weight into place. “Do you have a job in America?”

“No,” I said. “I will come back to China for work.”

“If you come back to Chenxi, you can work here,” he explained.

“Right, I could work at Number Two Middle School.”

“No. I mean you could work at this gym. You could teach people how to exercise.”

I laughed.

“Seriously,” he said. “I can pay you a lot of money and you can live in my apartment.”

♦♦♦

“This class is our last class,” I said in Chinese as the bell rang. “So, I just want to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Bye-bye!’”

My students stirred in their seats, confused and awkward as early-adolescents should be. But then an unexpected, emphatic chant rose over the class: “No bye-bye! No bye-bye! No bye-bye!”

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Jamming with Mr. Zhou

When I look back on February and the greater half of March, I’ll likely remember a smear of dull, grey skies with temperatures that seem indifferent about providing an environment in which daily activities don’t seem to take an abnormal amount of physical strain. The weather has been stuck in an early-adolescent spring for nearly a month now, and the light blue clouds that stubbornly hang overhead don’t promise for warmer days to break up the monotonous drone 40-degree conditions. Not every day has been a wash of smog and drizzle, though. More recently, a few days of sun provided us a glimpse of the pale blue sky behind Chenxi’s curtain of showers. And those few days were a chance to explore, once again, the hillsides and back alleys of my temporary home.

Sun and hiking have become as closely associated in Chenxi as snow and shoveling once were in Minnesota. When the sun makes its fleeting appearance every few weeks, a hike through town and its surrounding hills usually follows as my apartment is beginning to feel smaller and smoggier by the day. More recently, I’ve been taking longer, more winding routes through once-familiar parts of the city; the results have yielded discoveries and conversations that would never have happened otherwise.

During those tragically brief days when the sun finally decided to break through, I found myself—upon getting thoroughly lost, of course—in Chenxi’s oldest part of town. Unlike the more modern and business-based capital city of Changsha, my industrial town has managed to retain a bit of charm in its dusty, cracked homes that look as if they’ve somehow survived the PRC’s push to build upwards. Directionless, I wandered past these relics whistling my favorite Chinese folk song and Kung Fu movie anthem, “On the General’s Orders”. But before I could feel too satisfied with the overwhelming Chineseness of my surroundings, the sound of western instruments crept over my whistling and compelled me to scope out their source.

As I crept forward, broken and mispronounced English awkwardly poured from the glass doors of a storefront a few meters ahead of me. I wasn’t in the mood to teach a pronunciation lesson, but an English song is an extremely rare treat to catch in Chenxi, so I traced the song until I stood in front of the performers’ music shop. Plastic clung to the guitars mounted against the walls and in the center of the store was a shiny drum set that looked as if it hadn’t been touched since it left the assembly line.

The singer cooed in slurred English as he plucked at his worn six-string.  He looked out of place when compared to the stereotypical, 20-something Chenxi manboy; his hair wasn’t teased or blow-dried into a ridiculous swoop, he was without a glossy pleather jacket, and his teeth didn’t seem to be stained by excessive cigarette smoking and betel nut chewing. He wore a plaid shirt and ripped jeans—an imitation of the Cobainian grunge uniform of America’s early 90s. His companion and fellow picker was a boy no more than 16, his eyes fixed on a sheet of chords diagrams on the floor.

Like a spectator at a zoo, I gazed at the spectacle behind the glass. After what sounded like the chorus, the man lifted his head and glanced to his right, through the store’s sliding doors. He squinted and then, upon widening his eyes in astonishment, smiled at his foreign audience. The student waved for me to come in and, without hesitation, I jostled free the door and stepped inside.

Our interaction was brief, as the teacher seemed to be in the middle of a lesson.  “Please sit and have a listen,” he said as he pointed to the drum set’s throne. The man was confident, undeterred by my whiteness.

“Thank you,” I replied. “Your store is very beautiful.”

The teacher laughed and nudged his student in the ribs. The boy looked up from his sheet music.

“Your Chinese isn’t bad,” the student said with a vigorous thumbs up.

I refused the compliment to save face, but also to be honest. Motioning to the drums, I asked: “Is it okay if I play these?”

The instructor grinned. “Sure. We’ll play together,” he said. “Wait a moment.”

I picked up the dented drumsticks and, before I could acquaint myself with the set, the teacher shouted to a room in the rear of the shop.

“Lǎo Zhōu! Lǎo Zhōu!” he screamed. “Old Zhou! Old Zhou!”

A man with hair as thin and white as a calligraphy brush waddled out from a room behind the music store’s staircase. His inch-thick tortoise shell glasses made his eyes appear three sizes too large for his droopy face. Without hesitation or acknowledgement of the wàiguórén in the room, the old man sat down at the keyboard a few feet from the guitarists.

The two men exchanged garbled sentences in Chénxīhuà, a mess of harsh ‘g’, ‘r’, and ‘k’ sounds. But, despite my inability to understand, I deciphered that the two agreed on something. The student nodded enthusiastically and looked back in my direction.

“Did you understand?” he asked.

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t speak Chénxīhuà.”

The student smiled. “It’s okay. We’re going to play Jiāzhōu Lǚguǎn together.”

I asked him to repeat himself. “I don’t know this,” I then admitted, in defeat.

He paused and tapped the neck of his guitar; his frustrated expression seemed to say What’s another way to say this?

“Jiālìfúníyǎ zhōu.” he said, deliberately.

“California?” I responded. “In America?”

“Correct,” the student said. “California lǚguǎn.”

I rifled through my mental Chinese-English dictionary, but couldn’t place the oddly familiar word. Though I expressed my embarrassment, the student continued to attempt to illustrate his meaning.

“Hotehr!” he finally shouted, as if he had made an epiphany. “California Hotehr!”

It dawned on me: lǚguǎn is one of the many ways to say hotel in Mandarin. On cue, the teacher began playing the opening riff to “Hotel California” by the Eagles. The student’s head fell to his chord sketches and I was left to pick up the beat.

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A Party in Pushi (Part Three)

Those who have any sort of regular contact with non-native English-speaking Chinese people can attest to the fact that Chinese-English is wrought with codes. Maybe is a ubiquitous word that can, at times, mean without a doubt and, at other times, mean no way in hell. Nevermind or It’s nothing or No problem are all polite ways to express one’s deep resentment but overriding impatience with an overly-entitled foreign teacher. Strength is usually synonymous with how many bottles of rice wine one can imbibe before falling face first onto the dirty carpet of a cheap hotel’s restaurant. As Ben led me through the courtyard of his newly-married wife’s housing block, I was afraid his husband-in-law’s invitation to display my “strength” may have ended with me waking up in the middle of Pushi’s countryside with nothing but the taste of nail polish remover in the back of my mouth.

Though I don’t claim to know anything about Chinese weddings, the remnants of the ceremony looked to have been fairly conventional: an elaborate red dress for the bride, a grand tea table, an altar to the family, Double Happiness (shuāngxǐ) designs in abundance. And the reception was everything I expected from a proper Chinese celebration: oversized woks manned by veteran chefs, poorly-sung karaoke blasting from expensive speakers, and more pungent alcohol than an average-sized distillery can produce in a standard work year. The stroll through the courtyard proved more than cumbersome as many of the attendees were eager to meet (or drink with, rather) the foreigner. Ben escorted me as a well-paid bodyguard would an obnoxious celebrity in some paparazzi-filled, LA night club—he even resorted to giving a few pudgy businessmen some gentle shoves on our way to meet the illustrious brother-in-law.

As I could have anticipated, the man in question sat at a table in the corner of the courtyard and surrounding him were men who all equally fit the look of a local in the Chinese countryside. Their thick hair looked as if it had been pushed back with engine grease, their skin was the color of walnut, and their eyes held the sort of adolescent mischievousness I usually encounter just before catching one of my 13 year-old students intentionally breaking a classroom rule. Ben and I stood for a moment in front of their table, both of us waiting for a reaction. The table of men delivered.

Laughter—the kind that sounds more like a splintered wheeze than it does an expression of glee—was what met Ben and me as the men slowly caught glimpse of the white man in their presence. Fists pounded the table, heads reeled back, feet kicked up dusted into my sinuses. Unsure of what to do and nervous beyond rational thought, I returned their laughter with the same enthusiasm; the surrounding guests were seemed to be as baffled by the situation as I was. I’m still unsure if my laughter cut the tension or simply contributed to the mutual awkwardness between our two parties. As we quieted down, a man at the head of the table stood who looked as if he ate whole cows and whose job entailed lifting mountains.

Ben and his burly brother-in-law exchanged a few words about me—the usual: my age, my nationality, my job, my salary—and the man waved me over to sit on the stool to his immediate left, the seat usually reserved for the guest of honor. As the groom, Ben had plenty of red envelopes (hóngbāo) to collect, so he quickly dismissed himself and left me to fend off innumerable questions and toasts. The ritual of surviving a Chinese drinking party is a skill that I’ve honed over the past seven months: individually toast everyone at the table (“Lái, lái, lái! Hē jiǔ, hē jiǔ!”), answer questions (“Do you eat spicy food”; “What do you think of Chinese girls?”; “How much money do you make in your home country?”), and spit out some local dialect for an easy laugh (“Mǎgā?!”; “Khoukhou-ar, khoukhou-ar!”). My performance of this routine was made infinitely easier by the amount of báijiǔ my newfound friends consumed before I sat down—everyone was at least two bottles in. In just under an hour, I forged impermeable relationships with seven men who promised to stay my Zhōngguó péngyǒu forever or until they all passed out later that evening.

The rest of my evening was spent sipping drinks, repeating the same jokes to each clique I was introduced to, and singing awful renditions of my favorite Chinese love ballad; all the while, my roving pack of seven adopters made sure I wasn’t embarrassing myself too much. The older attendees soon petered out and the celebrations began to simmer down around midnight. Before I was dismissed, though, Ben insisted that I ignite the remaining mountain of fireworks behind his wife’s house.

“Is this a good idea?” I remember asking Ben as we made our way to a disorganized heap of mortar tubes and firecracker rolls.

Ben heaved his arm around my shoulder and with a slur, he said: “Yes. This is a fucking good idea.”

Ben picked up the use of English profanity from his expat coworkers and I’ve found that his use of fucking is a crude code for superlatively. And he was right. Our decision to light off a few thousand Yuan’s worth of pyrotechnics and likely wake every sleeping soul in the town of Pushi was a “fucking good” way to end the night.

 

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A Party in Pushi (Part Two)

“We’ve arrived,” Ben’s sister-in-law reported as our driver turned off the van’s engine and let his vehicle roll down a slight decline and into a square of a few buildings that looked as if they bled dirt and grime.

Maneuvering my way out of the congested van proved to be a less-than-graceful endeavor. I knocked my head a few times against the van’s roof and ended up stumbling ass-first out of the passenger-side doors. Embarrassed giggles followed each blunder I made—in addition to my funny accent, I’m sure my slapstickery made for excellent, free entertainment for my fellow passengers. Eventually, though, I brushed off the dirt from my bag of oranges (a fairly standard gift when visiting a Chinese household) and scanned the desolate town for Ben, the groom who covertly invited me to be a guest star in his wedding. It had been a few months since I had seen him and the only image that stuck in my mind regarding his appearance was a man of about 25 in eyeglasses that magnified his eyes to twice their size.

“We should go together,” said Ben’s sister-in-law in a bouncy tone. Her ability to speak a foreign language was far beyond mine, but I insisted on trying to communicate in the limited Mandarin I could muster up. To eavesdroppers, I’m sure our conversation looked as if it were ripped from a bad sitcom in which two characters confused their identities.

“Is the party far from here?” I asked.

Ben’s sister-in-law measured the distance in her head; her eyes looked as if she were trying to get a glimpse of her hairline.

“Not far,” she finally said. “Maybe five minutes by motor-taxi.”

As if on cue, a stout, three-wheeled vehicle came barreling into view from the opposite end of the small town. Its shell was more pod-shaped than car-shaped and its small size and chipped, yellow paintjob made the buggy resemble a something American children would beg their parents to ride in at a county fair. Carried by its residual momentum, the motor-taxi made a slow and noiseless stop at our feet. The driver popped open the vehicle’s only door and revealed an opening no larger than that of a cabinet in my kitchen.

“Shàng chē,” Ben’s sister-in-law said. “Get in the car.”

I sighed as I noticed the small crowd of onlookers behind me and realized that their afternoon’s entertainment programming was soon to switch from Laowai jibber jabber back to Laowai Tetris.

♦♦♦

“David!”

His voice wasn’t necessarily familiar, but Ben’s excitement was unmistakable as he rushed from a crowded courtyard to vigorously greet me. A western-style suit a few sizes too husky hung awkwardly over Ben’s shoulders and, without his glasses, he squinted to get a better look at me.

“Gōngxǐ!” I said as I offered him my measly bag of citrus. “Congratulations!”

He chuckled at my consideration and carefully accepted the oranges with both hands. His hair was in that uncomfortable phase after it had been recently cut: too even to look natural, too closely-cropped to look handsome. He shook my hand for a full ten seconds and began to usher me to his wife’s house. As we drew closer to the celebrations, heads began to turn and fingers began to point—a few sounds of surprise emanated from the wedding’s celebrators (“Ohhh!”; “Eh?!”; “Waaah!”).

Almost every visible surface in the courtyard outside of bride’s house was covered in red fabric—the ground littered with the charred, pink remnants of firecrackers. The modest crowd of about 200 attendees gradually let their small talk die down enough for Ben to make an announcement in which he introduced me as his “foreign friend” who is “an oral English teacher at Chenxi Er Zhong”, “really interesting”, and “likes Chinese people.” Most of his grand introduction was lost on me as he was speaking fast and his tones were exaggerated for theatricality. After Ben wrapped up his spiel, a pause of quiet passed between me and the audience—I took this as my turn to extend a few words and, again, provide a bit of amusement for my ever-present crowd of spectators.

“Hello everyone,” I said in the clearest Putonghua my nervousness would allow. “My English name is David, but my Chinese name is Mài Huī.”

“Mài Huī,” the crowd recited, almost in unison.

“Correct,” I replied as I dug through the few Mandarin phrases that seemed appropriate for the occasion. “Today is a good day because my good friend is to be married.”

It was an uncomfortable few seconds and the crowd laughed accordingly. Satisfied and thoroughly embarrassed, I folded my hands in front of my face and gave a hearty Xièxiè! to signal the end of my speech. The partygoers seemed relieved that I was finished and responded with similarly uproarious Xièxie!

“Now,” Ben said to me as the gathering continued their festivities. “My brother-in-law wants to meet you. He is a local person and wants to see how strong you are.”

Realizing that the night was now far beyond my control and that I should simply agree to every offer put forth to me, I pushed aside my confusion and said, “Okay, let’s go!”

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A Party in Pushi (Part One)

The rapid pulse of my cell phone’s vibration jarred me from a nap and left me confused not only as to where I woke up, but who would be texting me so early in the morning. From the acrid smell of cleaning solution and second-hand smoke, as well as from the unforgiving curvature of the bench I was seated in, I remembered that I had decided to doze off before boarding my bus back to Chenxi and was sitting in the frigid bus station. My cell phone displayed the timea quarter before a reasonable hour to talking on the phoneand an unread message from a quirky software engineer, Ben (his self-assigned English name), whom I met nearly four months prior.

“when will u come to chenxi? we will have a party today.”

Like most English text messages I receive from my Chinese friends and colleagues, Ben’s words were buoyant with excitement, but oddly cryptic, nonetheless.

“I will return at 1 o’clock,” I responded. “Where is your party?”

I only had to wait a few minutes before Ben jostled me awake again. I rubbed my eyes and waited for the display of my cheap mobile to come into focus.

“in pushi. it is a small town about 30 minutes away from chenxi. pls come to see about life in the countryside.”

His offer was tempting as I just spent three weeks on vacation, surrounded by Westerners, and was craving a chance to once again feel far outside my comfort zone. Attending a rural shit-shoot and experiencing “life in the countryside” sounded like a perfect way to reintroduce me to the motherland.

“Sure,” I messaged back. “I’ll see you later today.”

♦♦♦

“Excuse me,” I called out as I approached a husky man who leaned, with a casually arrogant slump, against a dark grey minivan. The metal around its tires was a fire-orange with rust. “I want to go to Pushi. How do I get there?”

The man’s face was round and shaded with grey stubble. Though his hairline was without a mention of recession, I figured him to be in his mid-forties.

“You’re going to Pushi?” he asked. “Why?”

“I am going to see my friend,” I responded.

“Mm,” the man grunted as he nodded his head in understanding. “You’re going to see your friend. In that case, I can help you.”

The conversation paused as I peered over the man’s shoulder and into the windshield of his rickety minivan. Crumpled cigarette packs littered the passenger seat, newspapers were strewn across the dashboard, and in the back of the vehicle was an impressive, almost eclectic collection of indistinguishable automobile parts; from the contents of this man’s ride, I assumed that he was not employed by any sort of reputable travel agency or trustworthy government organization.

“Are you a driver?” I asked, making my skepticism obvious.

He either misunderstood or simply shrugged off my question as he began to pitch his price. Pushi is 45 minutes away, he explained, and it costs 100RMB to hire a private minivan. However, if seven people were to pool their resources, he went on, each person will only have to pay 15RMB.

By this time, a crowd had gathered in a semi-circle around our broken conversation. A smattering of hushed discussions in Chenxihua were being held behind me, all with traces of the words “wàijiào”, “wàiguórén”, and “lǎowài”. At the mention of splitting the cost of the unofficial driver’s minivan, the crowd gave unanimous grunts of agreement.

Fantastic, I thought to myself. How would I even begin to recruit someone—much less six other someones—to come to a party in the middle of the countryside?

As it turns out, the answer to my question came in the form of a woman who looked as old as time herself. The bulky winter coat that kept her warm and dry during Hunan’s unforgiving winter held so much insulation that it did not allow her arms to relax fully at her sides. She gave a few less-than-friendly tugs at my coat and insisted I have a seat in the van while she looked for more people to go to Pushi. I resisted, at first.

“It’s nothing,” I urged as I tried to pry her hands from the cloth of my jacket. “I will go another time.”

She scoffed, waved her hand, and packed me neatly into the backseat of the van. In just a few minutes, my knees were at my chin. The old woman, my personal travel agent and unofficial ambassador, auctioned off legroom in the Pushi-bound vehicle as if the road led to an endless supply of pickled radishes (people in Chenxi buy this regional delicacy by the armful). She found six people with ease. Then she found three more. The collection of car parts that rested in the driver’s backseat served as motor oil-stained ottomans.

As the van pulled onto a gravel road and the coal-processing plant of Chenxi fell behind the overlapping hills that line the Yuan river, a young woman in the front seat craned back her neck to get a better look at me. We made eye contact and I gave her a moment to take in my foreignness.

“Are you Dave?” she asked nearly flawless English. Her accent was thick, but it sounded as if it had been beaten down and molded by a foreign teacher. “Ben is my sister’s fiancé. Are going to their wedding today?”

Suddenly aware that the nondescript party invitation may have been Ben’s clever way of luring me into a possibly uncomfortable situation, I replied: “Of course!”

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A Foreign Face in the Crowd (Part Two)

Over the past few months, I have yet to indulge my juvenile disposition to learn as much foreign profanity as possible while learning a new language. Though I’ve picked up a few slang phrases to express surprise or dissatisfaction (māde, wǒ cào), I have yet to learn how to deliberately offend someone using offensive insults—I’ve probably done enough unintentionally offensive actions already. But, aboard the train to Guangzhou, I was offered a free lesson in vulgarities as a heated argument broke out in my car. I was also given a chance to step out of the spotlight and join the faceless masses that make up a group of speechless spectators.

In my limited experience as a traveler in China, I’ve found silence to be incredibly significant. A lull in conversation, especially on a train, can mean that it is either time to take a nap, or it is time to eavesdrop. That said, the occasional lowering of voices is a rarity and when it happens, the silence is deafening.

♦♦♦

Travelers were filing into the train car to Guangzhou as delicately as confused cattle. Shoving and elbowing one’s way past a myriad of riders is standard when boarding most modes of transit in this country. In fact, I now grow irritated and impatient when more polite travelers insist on forming a Westernized queue. I had just barged my way through the aisle of Car 11—my pack made and excellent battering ram—when a voice broke out from behind me.

“Come back here,” it said in hysterical anger.

My joints seized. Had I not observed the aggressive customs of budging properly? Surely, when compared to the surly veterans of the rails, my efforts to snake through a crowd were graceful.

“What’s wrong with you?”

The voice reached a shriek when it hit its tonal zenith. Reluctantly, I spun around to greet my accuser, but was relieved to find that the owner of the voice directed his comments to another person only a few feet away from me. Heart still racing, I averted my stare and stowed my bag above my seat. As I took my bench next to a young woman, a kinetic hush enveloped the car.

“You should apologize!”

The shouting came from a man who appeared to be about my age. His bangs swept off to one side of his forehead and his jet-black, pleather jacket crinkled when with each threatening gesture he threw across the aisle. As he continued his rant, he stood on his seat, as if to attempt to make himself appear taller, more imposing.

“I’m sorry,” said the other man.

Like the belligerent provoker of the argument, this man couldn’t have been over 25 years-old. His cheeks had a boyish pudginess to them and his cheap business suit looked as if it had been recently pressed.

Sorry is no good,” cried the man atop his seat. A wiry woman in a cheetah-print skirt grabbed onto the aggressor’s legs and attempted to pull him down from his perch.

“I’m sorry, brother,” the man repeated. His hands were folded in front of him as a sign of respect and humility. “I’m sorry.”

A twisted, violent look came over the provoker. His right leg slipped free from his partner’s restraint and he gave a swift front kick in the apologetic man’s direction. The crowd, silent up until this point, gave a collective gasp.

“Look, I’ll go sit,” said the defensive partner of the argument.

Seeing no way to coerce his antagonist to levelheadedness, the timid man turned his back and proceeded toward his seat. The crowd lingered in silence, though. It was as if we were somehow dissatisfied with the resolution—we wanted spitting, we wanted blood.

“What’s the matter with them?” I whispered to my benchmate.

“I—I don’t know,” she responded. “I think the fat man’s wife told—”

But my translator was cut off by the shouting man’s effort to reignite the poorly doused embers of the confrontation. He spat an insult so fierce that it made a few members of the peanut gallery give an Oho! of excitement.

The game was back on. The once-defensive man turned on his heel, pointed his finger down the car, and marched back toward the troublemaker. Exhilaration oozed from the crowd as the “fat man’s wife” stood from her seat and began to shoot strings of intensely fricative sentences at her husband’s opponent. The dispute’s passion waxed and waned; at some points, the men swapped offenses from a respectable distance, while at other points, the men engaged in small scraps complete with ear pulls, kidney punches, and shin kicks. We, the spectators, were thrilled. An older couple beside me opened their bag of sunflower seeds and began to chow down while watching the two man-boys scuffle.

Soon, though, the argument reached its illogical conclusion and fizzled into an exchange of apologies and cigarettes. The more vicious of the two still looked as if he harbored enough resentment to fuel our 16-hour train ride, but he reluctantly relented upon his partner’s request. The two men separated and the crowd resumed its chatter. As the formerly-skittish man retreated to his bench, he made eye contact with me.

“Méishénme,” he said with a smile. “It’s nothing.”

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A Foreign Face in the Crowd (Part One)

Isolation, and all of its conjugations, is not a word that adequately encapsulates my experiences as a foreigner in a land built on guānxì (the Chinese system of building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships). Legroom is a luxury in this country and, on the rare occasion that I try to completely shut out the Chinese world outside, the steady hum of car horns, metal welding, and fourth-tone-laden arguments reminds me that this country has a way of swallowing a foreigner—even the most rudimentary and mundane of daily activities can turn into complicated cultural tug o’ wars. Though I have, to some degree, been enveloped by the masses of the Middle Kingdom, a chorus of commentators continually remind me of who I am whenever I enter the public’s space (“That’s Èr zhōng’s wàijiào”; “The wàiguórén likes to eat apples!”; “Look at the lǎowài’s bag—it’s is so big!”; “Hey Báizǐ!”).

My distinctiveness, as well as the lǎobǎixìng’s (common people’s) reactions to it, doesn’t stoke my sense of irritability as the cat-calling once did. After all, I was raised to believe that I am as unique as snowflake, and that has never more apparent than when this tall, blue-eyed snowflake floats his way through a black-haired, pleather-clad blizzard of Zhōngguórén. There have only been a few moments during my time in China when I have been allowed to slip across the other side of the wall of spectatorship, and those instances have always left me feeling a tad bit unsettled.

Almost every travel writer who has been to China has written about it: the rare occasion when a person deviates from the expected social folkway and becomes the sudden spectacle of a silent mob of onlookers. In Rivertown, a memoir about teaching at a rural university in Sichuan, Peter Hessler recounted his students’ fascination with the tale of Robin Hood. The students, Hessler wrote, were not drawn in by the adventure of the story; rather, they were captivated by the eponymous character’s decision to act out from the masses, his willingness to stand against conformity. To distinguish one’s self from the homogeneous mass in this country, it seems to me, is an act that is met with great admiration, intense scrutiny, or unblinking fascination.

Heated, public arguments are one of the most common sources for large masses of seemingly indifferent onlookers. As I boarded my train to the Guangdong province a few days ago, I never anticipated that I would be a participant in one of these crowds as another stone-faced observer.

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