White Whale: In Pursuit of the Mysterious Foreigner of Heqing

He’s like Chupacabra, or ghosts, or mountain lions in New England. Platform 9 ¾, in human form. He’s rural China’s Loch Ness Monster. Scores of people claim his existence, many even claim to have caught a fleeting glimpse of him on a hazy afternoon, but the evidence is thin and the story is different each and every time.


One guy at a corner noodle shop professes to have once known him. He’s an Australian English teacher, with a wife and a little boy. However, upon secondary questioning, the little boy magically becomes a little girl. A tuk-tuk driver once had him in his cab. He’s a businessman who deals in furniture exports. German for sure. Or was it imports? Had he said he was Russian? A woman at the hair salon knows a guy who knows a girl that cut his hair once. He was demanding and irritable, in classically French fashion. Which one is he? Is he all of these things in one? Is he none of these things in all? Is he one person or twenty?


He’s an ephemeral being. One second he’s standing in the middle of the street, blink and he’s disappeared in a crowd. Poof. Who is he, you might be asking? He’s the laowai (foreigner) of Heqing, and he’s everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. The stories were getting tired and disorderly. I needed a restorative moment of faith, like when Christ’s image appears on the underside of a grilled cheese sandwich. I needed proof. Cold, hard, white, proof.


You know those maps in National Geographic that plot electricity use at night? Heavy population centers with excess wealth shine the brightest. North Korea is almost completely dark, while South Korea is essentially entirely ablaze. I want one of those maps representing foreigners in Mainland China. I think it would look something like this: The Beijing-Shanghai corridor would be gleaming; business centers Guangzhou and Shenzhen would be super bright. Big cities like Chengdu, Changsha, and Chongqing would also be alight. Yunnan’s glow would come from Kunming’s sizable foreign population. Heqing, though, is deep in the heart of Southwestern China. It would be pitch dark, except maybe, for one little mysterious blip.


Despite being in between massive tourist destinations, Dali and Lijiang, Heqing City is completely devoid of foreigners. It’s not unusual. Most cities of 50 some odd thousand in China probably don’t have many, if any outsiders. This is why when I hear of another ex-pat in Heqing whose full name, hometown, and life story I am not familiar with, I suspend belief. I would have seen him by now or at least he would have seen me. A foreigner, especially one of non-Asian descent, is about as hard to miss as a giraffe in the middle of the Arctic tundra. No, if I hadn’t found him by now, he most likely didn’t exist, or he was actively avoiding discovery.


So it was, one overcast afternoon in June, I found myself on the bumpy road to Heqing City. I planned to meet some friends for dinner and relax somewhere with access to water pressure and air conditioning. I hopped out of the van at a hotel next to the bus station. I paid the driver the five-Yuan (80¢) fee for the pleasure of spending 45 minutes in fear of my life, and continued to reception.


I arranged to share a room with my friend and TFC colleague Sunny, who, like me, is undoubtedly not Chinese. I hadn’t spoken to her about specifics, but I knew she was already at the hotel. I walked up to the receptionist, who looked mildly perturbed at the thought of a customer.


“Do you have a room?” She inquires.


“Yes. I already booked one for tonight.”


“So… which room is it?”


I realized I hadn’t asked Sunny the room number.


“The one with the foreigner.” That’s how few non-Chinese people there are in Heqing.


“Ok. Room 501. Fifth floor


“Elevator?” I doubt there is an elevator in the county of Heqing.


She chuckles and motions toward the stairs.


So, I lumber up the five flights. The fifth floor is quiet. Eerily so. It’s a distilled silence, devoid of even the baseline buzz of life. It feels as though no one has ever been here before. It seems odd that Sunny, or for that matter, any guests would be all the way up here. The hotel certainly did not operate at capacity, and one would reckon that reception would fill up floors 1-4 before sending guests to hike to their rooms. I looked outside, where there was a rather large communal balcony. There was a little green plant in a pot on a table. It wisped up and down slowly in the silent wind. There was nothing peaceful about the fifth floor. It was uneasy.


After I got my bearings, I headed to room 501, which was all the way at the end of the long yellow hallway. As I walked, the sound of my steps bounced off each wall. I got the feeling that one of the doors would open, I’d turn around, and two little girls in blue dresses would be standing there, asking me to come play with them, forever and ever and ever.


I arrived in front of room 501 and appraised the door for a minute. I briefly thought about calling Sunny then chose to knock. I discerned a rustle, the first sound I’d heard since arriving on the fifth floor. After a moment, the door creaked open and in the threshold stood, not Sunny, but a man who must have been all of 6’5” with long, greasy blond hair that hung in a haphazard ponytail and terminated at the middle of his back. He had a mild hunch about him and looked to be in his early 40s. His eyes were deep and dark and decidedly cold. He appeared as though he hadn’t seen sun in months. He kind of looked like an ex-hair metal bassist who had done far too many Quaaludes. His most staggering characteristic, though, by any stretch of the imagination, was his whiteness.


“Dui bu qi,” I was flustered, and apologized in Chinese.


He looked at me, gazed into my soul briefly, then shut the door and slunk back into the bowels of room 501. I had the disconcerting feeling that I had just laid eyes upon something I should not have—like an intern who accidentally stumbles into the President’s classified files, or the unlucky bro who views the video in The Ring—and I couldn’t take it back. I paused for a second then broke into a walk that could only be described as not quite running—the kind of walk that says, “I need to get the fuck out of here, but don’t want to look ridiculous.” I wanted my mother.


Once I got back to the lobby I called Sunny. As it turns out, she was posted up in room 104. Of course.


I cannot stress how utterly impossible this scenario is. At that moment, there were probably three foreigners in the entire city of Heqing: Sunny, myself, and the man upstairs. That he happened to be in the same nondescript hotel as both of us and that I knocked on his door is almost infinitesimally unlikely. We’re talking thousandths of one percent. Bizarre to an even further degree is that this mystery man didn’t even utter a word. It’s possible that he was too startled for speech and simply collapsed back into his room and promptly died of shock. However, Heqing is not New York. It’s not Shanghai. It’s not even Dali. If you see another foreigner here and you aren’t in a swiftly moving vehicle, I believe it is required by law to say hello. Or at the very least to offer up a probing “Who are you and what are your intentions?” Honestly, I’m not even sure how I would approach such a situation, as it’s never happened to me before. But, I know I would do or say something. The guy in 501 just stared at me. And said nothing.


I imagine if I were ever to see a ghost or Bigfoot, it would be a lot like this. It would happen quickly, without warning, and in a completely fleeting manner. Afterwards, I would be unable to reliably parse the details together. Out of confusion or fear I’d begin to change my story. I may even convince myself that I was making it up all along. If I went back to room 501 tomorrow with all my friends I would knock, and after a moment a little old Chinese lady would come out and ask me if I was lost. They would all laugh at me and say, “You idiot, there aren’t any foreigners in Heqing. You’ve really lost it.” I’d frantically go looking for the noodle shop owner, but the shop would be closed down. The tuk-tuk driver would have moved to another city. I’d go to the hair salon only to find that it’s been converted into a small clothes shop with a 95-year-old seamstress and she’d look at me like I was a lunatic and say, “Hair salon?I’ve worked at this shop since 1931.”Unknown-3

Then I’d think I’d really gone crazy. I’d pack my bags in the middle of the night and move into a nondescript hotel in a faraway town in the middle of China and never come out again.


Meat, Beer, and Impotence

I waited on the side the road. A bus stopped. I hopped on. The bus drove for a while. I hopped off. Then I got on another bus. This one drove for a few minutes, too. I got off. Then I got in a car.

It was raining, ever so slightly.

The car drove for some time, then finally left the road and began to amble up and over rocks and ditches and wet little hills. As it drove deep into the woods, I had a distinct feeling I was in one of those scenes, like the one in Miller’s Crossing or the one where Adrianna La Cerva takes her final ride in The Sopranos. In those scenes, you never want to be in the passenger’s seat, and that’s where I was, elbow propped against the window listening to Baby by Bieber. We kept going. Finally, we reached something of a clearing.


“Get out,” the driver implored blank-faced.

And there they were: a mass of teachers from my school, milling about eagerly, ready to seal my fate.

Mr. Long, the short, stocky, bowlegged leader of the pack meets me halfway. He’s got a cigarette resting between his lips, bobbing up and down. One hand is motioning me closer. The other hand is hiding something behind his back. What is it? As I come upon him, he reveals the mystery.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he grins deviously.

He circles his left hand around front. It’s a cooking pan, and it’s full of Dali beer.

“Ah yes, a pan full of beer. But, I don’t believe beer belongs in a pan, Mr. Long. Surely, there’s been some mistake,” I try for naivety.

“It’s about time you arrived Mr. Luo. We’ve been at it all day. You should will catch up. Immediately.”

I’d estimate the amount of beer in the pan at around two large sized bottles of Dali. That size is somewhere between an Olde English and your standard Blue Moon. It was soon confirmed that it was indeed 2.5 bottles of Dali. Quality wise, Dali beer is on par with Natural Light. Now, this would be all fine and good if I wanted to pick up a case of Dali for a night’s worth of shotgunning and beer pong. However, in most instances Dali is the only beer available. So if you’re looking for a party it’s either Dali or baijiu (which I now exclusively refer to as “evil”, or 邪恶(xie e), direct translation: 邪: heretical 恶: wickedness) I imagine the Dali factory as an assembly line in five stages: The first stage shapes the bottle. The second stage slaps a label on it. The third stage fills the bottle halfway up with water. The fourth stage consists of multiple men urinating precisely into the opening until the bottle has been nearly made full. The fifth stage screws on the cap.


So I drank it, in measured steps, at the prodding behest of Mr. Long. As I tipped over the final gulp, I immediately felt completely full and dismally sober, the patented Dali beer buzz. But, at least I could begin to enjoy the afternoon.

As it turns out, I wasn’t simply being led on an ominous ride into an inconspicuous wooded area. It was a barbecue. In fact, it was strikingly similar to the American version. Everyone drove their cars into a field, brought various types of offerings, drank a lot of beer, and ate unreasonable amounts of meat. There were about 20 people in total: teachers, significant others, and a few kids, who periodically poked their heads in to pester mom and dad. The threat of rain was very much in the air.

A Yunnanese barbecue works like this: Everybody gets a bowl filled with dipping sauce. Copious amounts of meat and vegetables are dumped haphazardly onto the grill. Oil is lavishly flooded upon the meat and vegetables. Everyone sits around the grill, on tiny stools built for little children, and prods and pokes the food until someone declares that all has been cooked to edibility by bravely clasping something with their chopsticks. As you can imagine, the oil is rather “jumpy.”

It started to rain. I grabbed my bowl of dipping sauce, snagged five or six pieces of not liver, stomach, or dried blood, “inadvertently” kicked over my bottle of Dali beer amidst the haste and headed for the nearest car. We waited it out for a couple minutes, and then decided to change locations.


Everyone hopped out of the cars in a hurry and grabbed everything worth grabbing: the food, the grills, the children. We recreated the scene at another spot, a few minutes up the road that was also heavily clouded. Mr. Yang, my principal, assured us with supreme conviction that it would not rain there. On the way, one of the teachers crouched in the back of a pickup truck and never stopped grilling.

The festivities resumed. A teachers’ husband produced a giant bag of green flute-like vegetables. He dumped them on the grill and doused them in a wholly inappropriate amount of oil. The teachers started making jokes about the food, which turned out to be Chinese chives, immediately.

“Why so many chives man?” Mr. Long inquired with a hearty laugh.

“Because I like chives,” the man replied with a smirk.

“When you’ve been married as long as him, you have to like chives,” another teacher pointed out.

I was lost, utterly.

Then, the 27-year-old teacher sitting to my right, one of many Mr. Yangs, looked at me, “We don’t need the chives. Only they need the chives,” and he put his index finger in the air and curved it up and down. I thought I was starting to catch the chive vibe. He kept saying the word 伟哥(wei-ge) over and over.


There’s this frantic, heavily anticipatory moment that anyone who’s ever studied a foreign language knows about. It’s the moment between hearing a word and searching its meaning in a dictionary. It’s like when you’re the last person in the room to get the joke. Your neurons scramble to make connections and finally you figure it out, nod your head, and smile inside—because everyone else may have gotten the joke, but you got the incidental delayed gratification. I type “weige” into my dictionary. Weige: Viagra (male impotence drug). I was now fully in on the chive conversation.

A moment after I learned the mystery behind Chinese chives, one of the teacher’s wives approached the grill, grabbed a massive chopstick-full of chives and plopped them down in her husband’s dipping bowl. A minor riot of hysterics ensued. The wife tried to hold back, but she too let a chuckle slip. I seized the opportunity to “inadvertently” kick over another bottle of Dali and then lost myself in the laughter.

Despite Mr. Yang’s meteorological certitude, it promptly started to pour. We left.

I love this. I can’t get enough of this, this feeling of utter and complete sentience all around me. This feeling isn’t so easy to come by in 2014. Sometimes I think it’s got to do with being in the middle of the other side of the planet. Sometimes I think it’s the specific company I keep. Sometimes I think it’s because I don’t bring my cell phone. Sometimes I think it’s the baijiu. But then I think to myself, why should I have to emphasize or justify feeling alive? After all, isn’t that, like, kind of the point?