laowai

17 Feb

Yesterday I flew from Shanghai to Nanchang, where I was picked up at the airport by James. James is my wai ban, which means that he’s a teacher at my school who has the added duties of helping me get settled, showing me around town, and making sure I’m satisfied for the length of my contract–or, in his words, he’s my bodyguard. He’s a very kind man, and is extremely concerned with my happiness…he couldn’t meet me for breakfast this morning because he had to work, and he was very worried about what I would eat between dinner last night and noon today. I assured him that I am capable of finding food on my own, but he still insisted on buying me six xiao long bao for breakfast. (Xiao long bao are dumplings, and six is a lot of food.) Also, he loaned me his son’s cellphone (although I have a landline and my verizon cell works here) so that I would have three ways to reach him in case of emergency.

The school I am teaching at is Jin’an Senior High School, and they’ve been hosting foreign experts (my job title) since 1999. It is a great source of pride to the school…we are not in a big city, and having foreign teachers is seen as progressive, especially in a rural area. It’s nice because they are happy to have me, as well as obviously quite used to getting foreigners settled and shuttling them around. I haven’t really had to ask for anything because they’ve anticipated all my needs…if anything, I think they’ve over-anticipated. They keep trying to give me things I don’t need because somewhere along the way another foreign teacher requested them (a microphone, for example–I don’t really want one, but James is very concerned about this).

My school and apartment are in a neighborhood a few miles out of Jiujiang. Basically, when you leave the city traveling east along the Yangtze River bank, you pass a very industrial area and then you come to an oil refinery. My neighborhood is where the refinery employees live. We have a few store-lined streets and our own outdoor produce market. I suspect that most people living here don’t bother going into the city proper for groceries, which I mention only to give an idea of how self-contained my neighborhood is. And because we are on the far side of the industrial park, the area is well-defined. There’s no residential sprawl between us and the city.

I know there are a few foreigners living in downtown Jiujiang, including some teachers at Jiujiang University. But I am the only foreigner in my neighborhood, and everywhere I go, I get stared at. I don’t mean that everywhere I go, there is someone who stares. I mean that EVERYONE stares at me. Every person I pass on the street. It’s almost comical–people on bicycles and scooters crane around to keep staring at me after they’ve passed, sometimes swerving around wildly while they look back over a shoulder. I’m worried that I’m going to cause a messy, Vespa-intensive accident.

I was warned about the staring, because China was so closed for so long that there are many areas where they honestly never see white people. Despite the warning, it’s a little more intense than I expected…but not in a bad way. I’ve heard former foreign teachers complain that the staring made them very self-conscious, but I find it kind of freeing. People here are going to stare at me no matter what I do. If I walked down the street wearing my gold and red Iowa State pajama pants under a tutu, they couldn’t stare more than they do now. Therefore, it doesn’t matter so much if I say or do the wrong thing. If I’m wandering around looking confused, or if I try to walk into a doorway that I think is a shop and it turns out to be a private residence, or if I say something unintentionally hilarious while butchering Mandarin, I’m not going to cause that much more of a spectacle than I’m already causing. (And yes, those are all things I did today.) I suspect that I could do any crazy thing I wanted and it would be hand-waved away because I’m laowai (a foreigner). Laowai is one of the few Mandarin words I know, and I’ve probably heard it spoken 70 times today–not to me, but about me.

I feel like I should clarify that not one person has been rude. In the US, we tend to consider staring very rude, but I don’t think what I’m experiencing is rudeness. The people here in Jiujiang have been very warm so far–they’re just curious, I guess. People stare right up until I interact with them, and then they’re very friendly.

The semester has already started at my school, but I won’t teach until Monday, so I haven’t met any of the students yet. This afternoon, I was walking to meet James for lunch, and I passed by the school yard as the students were pouring out, heading to their own homes to eat. They had never seen me before, but I’d imagine it’s pretty clear that as the sole white person in the neighborhood, I’m the new foreign expert. At first, the kids were just staring as they walked by, giggling. I smiled at all of them, and then one of the braver girls said, “Hi, teacher!” as she passed. I said hi back, and waved, and then they all started greeting me. I was pretty much mobbed on the street corner by 30 of my future students, all of whom wanted to say “Hi, teacher!”.

It was a great moment.

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8 Responses to “laowai”

  1. candyce February 17, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    Now you know how a rock star feels!

    • Kathy February 18, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

      loawai probably means rock star..

    • Erin February 19, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

      I guess so! It’s really pretty funny, although I do hope the staring will calm down when people in the neighborhood get used to seeing me around.

  2. Kelly Wathen February 19, 2011 at 12:38 am #

    It sounds amazing so far and of course you are a rockstar that everyone wants to meet. I am so excited to hear about your adventure! Eat some fabulous food and enjoy your new students 🙂 Much love and BTW, you are a fantastic writer!

    • Erin February 19, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

      Thank you!

      (Oh, and, friend, in your quest to experience the world’s greatest nightlife, you REALLY need to visit Shanghai! You would LOVE IT!)

  3. Betsy February 20, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    Sis! This is awesome. Sounds like a lot of fun, and I’m sure all those students are gonna love you. I miss you lots. I want to visit you, too. Maybe after my internship ends.

    • Erin February 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

      It would awesome if you could visit! I think you’d like it in China.

  4. Jessica March 2, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    I think you’re very smart about your attitude toward the staring. I had never thought of it as freeing before, but it makes total sense! It reminds me of how everything I say and do is fascinating to a toddler, and things that I wouldn’t think are interesting or funny can keep him laughing or busy (or both) for a whole morning.

    So glad your students were excited to meet you! Can’t wait to read more. I’ve been wanting you to start a blog since before I did, by the way, since you are by far the better writer. I’m psyched that this trip has given you the push to do it. : )

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