The Wedding Invitation: A Curious Letter Comes to Town

I’ve been checking the post office every week or so. I take a van 15 minutes into town, do some errands, and pop my head in.

“Anything from America?”

“Nothing from America.” The bored woman tossing some bulky, beat up box labeled “FRAGILE” onto a scale tells me, without looking up.

I look at the stack of packages piled in the corner. Mostly TaoBao, probably.

“You sure? Nothing from someplace that isn’t in China?”

“Well, we do have something from Beijing.” She flings the “FRAGILE” box at the pile of packages.

“Yeah, but that’s in China.”

Yeah, but it’s pretty far away.”

“Nothing from USA!” A pudgy young guy comes in the back door, zipping up his pants zipper. He says the last three letters in English, of course.

            I’ve been waiting for something. I don’t know exactly what. My cousin asked me for my address and my address is this post office. It’s been about a month since he asked. I’m just hoping the thing, whatever it is, is a bunch of Reeses Cups and/or Reeses Pieces. That would be chill. Sometimes days go by when Reeses are all I think about. Rarely do my fantasies—sexual or otherwise—not feature some kind of interaction with chocolate.

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Fantasies

I keep checking the post office every time I go into town. But, nothing from America, nothing from Beijing. No chocolate.

“I’ve got something for you.” I open the WeChat message. It’s Brandon, one of my TFC colleagues who works in the town with the post office. Brandon and I are the only white foreigners for quite a ways.

Oh really?”

            A few minutes go by and a new message comes through.

“This came to me. For you. I think.” It’s a picture of my cousin Jake, and his fiancée, Lauren—dressed up all fancy. There’s a big bold, Baskerville-styled date on it and on the flip, some information in English regarding a wedding. A save the date card. No promise of Reeses included in the invitation. Fuck. Nonetheless, I’m happy for my cousin.

“So, are you gonna go?” I ask him.

Now, I don’t know exactly what transpired here. There are a few possibilities, some more exciting than others. But, this is what I’d like to believe happened: Sometime after my last check-in at the post office—an approximate five weeks since the save the date card left a mailbox in a little town in Upstate New York, USA—it arrives at the little town of Songgui, in Up-Province Yunnan, China. Once there, the bored woman sifting through and tossing into the dusty corner a bunch of TaoBao packages and Communist Party notices, chances to find the save the date invitation for my cousin Jake and Lauren’s wedding. At that point, she lets out a yelp, sending a package full of priceless Ming Dynasty-era ceramics crashing to the concrete floor. Upon hearing her scream, the pudgy guy, returning from the toilet, rushes into the room.

“Da. Fuck. Is. This?” She says, holding the invitation far away from her face.

Then the guy, who hasn’t zipped his pants yet, snatches the invitation from her.

“It appears to be a picture of two white people. They look to be of some importance, judging by the dress. Perhaps an advertisement for a diplomatic convention? Yes, that’s it. I can tell. And what’s this on the back? It’s English. My God!” He roars. “It’s all English.”

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Confusion

“Can’t you read it? Didn’t you tell me you could speak English? Didn’t you speak English to that foreigner last time? Didn’t you say USA to him?”

The pudgy guy zips up his pants and coughs, “Yes, of course, I can speak English. Come to think of it, this letter is written in French. I cannot read it. Anyway, no matter. It must be for that white guy. Let’s go deliver it to him.”

“But, who will watch the office?”

“No. Don’t you see? This letter—post card, matters of international consequence are surely riding on it. Time is a luxury we might not have. Close the shop.”

“But, wait! Aren’t there two white guys?”

“Absolutely not. There is the one at the elementary school in town. The teacher. He always comes in with strange questions about chocolate.”

“Well, OK. If you say so. But I thought one of them wore glasses.”

“No, he only wears glasses sometimes—come to think of it, I’ve noticed his Chinese is better when he’s wearing glasses. Funny how that works. Anyways, let’s move out.

                 The pudgy guy and the bored woman walk to Brandon’s school—five minutes from the post office—at a brisk pace.

“Where is the foreign teacher?” The woman poses the question, exasperated, to the security guard.

The guard lets out a formidable puff of smoke and takes his feet off of his desk, “No clue. Probably in class. What’s the deal?”

“We have this letter, umm, post-card. It regards international matters. Please see that it arrives to him immediately.”

“Yeah, alright.” The guard says, accepting the card. “I’ll find the foreigner.” He ashes his cigarette on the front side of the letter. The post office employees shudder and head back to the shop.

A few days go by. The security guard catches Brandon on his way off campus.

“Hey, Mr. USA. I got this letter for you. Supposed to be urgent. Something about international problems or something.”

Brandon freezes and goes white(r). Is it about my visa? Will I be deported? Will I spend the last 50 years of my life in the Gulag or whatever they do here?

            “Here.” The guard hands him the ashy letter, which now smells of grain liquor and has 3 or 4 cigarette burns across its face.

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Brandon and the security guard

Brandon regains color. Save the date. Loeb. And he looks at the picture and looks confused—wait a second. There are other white people?   

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Friday Night

I’m brought back to a simple fact time and again. All the world over, everyone does the same things. We eat, we drink, we relax, we go to the bathroom. We have to do these things. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of being alive. Whether we’re in China, Brazil, Iowa, Mozambique, we’ve got to do them. We just do them a little differently.

 

            “Let’s go, let’s go Mr. Luo. Time to eat.”

 

            I’m shooting hoops, when Mrs. Wang, a Sanzhuang local teacher, calls me to go to dinner.

 

            “Can I go like this?” I’m wearing a tank top and shorts.

            “Mmm… yes.” Unconvincing.

            “Give me two minutes.”       

            “I’ll be at the gate.”

 

            I run back to my room and throw on a black polo. I don’t change my shorts, because I play by my own rules.

 

            Mrs. Wang and I hop into the cab of a Yunnan style pickup. Half the size, slower, and louder than your average Ford F-150. We drive for a few minutes and come to an abrupt stop at a dusty side road. Our driver hangs a sharp left and winds us up the path. He takes another left and we arrive at a giant compound. At initial glance it feels a lot like Carcosa, from True Detective: A massive complex in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by low-lying shrubbery and dust. We hop out of the pickup. There’s a pen of irritable goats to my right. A bunch of guys I recognize are playing Mahjong at a table to my left.

 

            The Yunnanese Tony Soprano incarnate, calls to me: “Hitler, come on, let’s have a drink.”

 

            My Chinese name, 泰勒, Taile, happens to share the same final character as 希特勒, Hitler. As such, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano relentlessly calls me ‘Hitler.’ To explain to him why that is in no way chill, would be a waste of my time and effort, so I play along. I tell him I’ll be right back. I want to scope out this new place. I look into the first room; a bunch of people playing Mahjong. The second room; a few kids watching TV. I walk down a dirt path, take a left, and wind up in the kitchen. More people drinking and playing Mahjong. I walk back toward the front, where Tony and the regulars have quit their game.

 

            “Hitler, come on! Let’s do one.” Tony hands me the red cap to a bottle of baijiu. It’s full. I slurp it down. We sit. There are about 6 or 7 guys at the table. Among them are my principal, Mr. Yang, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano, the current and former Sanzhuang security guards, the local doctor, and one other guy that’s always there, but as far as I’m concerned has no name. We’re sitting outside, in the courtyard. I’m the youngest at the table by a solid ten years. I’m also the only one without a kid or a wife.

 

            Not a minute goes by before the dishes arrive. On the menu this evening:

 

            Onions, sliced thin, soaked in lime and pepper flakes. It tastes like ceviche. It tastes like something you’d put on a taco. It’s a rare flavor out here, and is beyond pleasantly surprising.

 

            Thin, flaky, giant sugary cheese chips laid on top of each other. Cheese is hard to come by in China, but these are the real deal.

 

            Jumbo beans doused in salty oil.

 

            Liangfen, grass jelly served cold, dipped in heavy soy sauce for optimal enjoyment.

 

            Fish. Tiny whole fish, maybe 4 inches long drenched in garlicky soy sauce. I never eat these because I’m lazy. The effort required to extract meat from between the myriad bones is too much for me to handle. I also don’t like eating things that still have eyes.

 

            Finally, the piece de resistance. Between the dishes, at the center of the table, is a bowl of pork soup. Big, fat bones and meat that gracefully slides off of them.

 

            Rice. Of course.

 

            It bears repeating. Almost all of this food is from the backyard. No preservatives, no GMOs, no nothing. It’s kind of like Whole Foods, except without a stock ticker.

 

            For a few minutes, no one speaks. We devour. Then, the former security guard calls us to attention.

 

            “Drink. Drink to good fortune.”

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            Everyone’s got a paper cup. He pours each of us a half glass of baiju. Everyone clinks and takes a sip. That familiar burn. All the way down to the pit of my stomach. It tastes like Everclear, but with half the effectiveness.

 

            The current security guard’s brother is sitting across from me. He’s wearing a camouflage shirt that says “U.S. Army” above the pocket. He looks at me.

 

            “Hey, in America can the government decide what age you can get married?”

            “I believe it’s 16 with parental consent, 18 without.”

            “Not bad. You know, it’s 22 for men in China. Twenty for women.” (I do not know if this is true).

            “That late, huh?”

            “Yes. Some colleges specifically forbid their students from getting married, as well.”

            “I guess a wife and kids could be a pretty big nuisance to studying, eh?”

            “You said it.”

 

            The former security guard puts his arm around the guy next to him and pinches his cheek.

 

            “In America, the two of us, heh, we could get married. I saw that on the news.”

            “You said it.”

            “But, you see. He’s too much trouble. It wouldn’t be a healthy marriage. He’s a drunk, you know. I’d have to throw him out.”

            “Yeah well, if you married him, you’ve got to deal with the consequences.”

            “DRINK!”

 

            Another round of shots. What happens if you erode the walls of your esophagus? Fuck it, I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

 

            It’s become clear to me that we like to view cultures and countries in the light of difference. “In America, you can get married at 18?” “In America, two dudes can get married?” “In China, do you really shit in a hole?” I play into that too. Everything I write on here is about how different my Chinese life is from my American life.

 

            It makes sense. Differences are much more intriguing than similarities, right? If everyone looked the same, ate the same food, shit in the same type of bathroom, life would be unbearably boring. But, really, strip away one or two layers of difference, and we’re all doing the same stuff.

 

            For the last five years of my life, I had a Friday ritual. I went to The Boot at 6:00 pm, sat outside with my friends, drank hard liquor, and told ridiculous stories. Now, on Friday night, I sit outside with my friends, drink hard liquor, and tell ridiculous stories. My friends are a little older, the liquor is a little harder, and the stories are told in a different language. The scene, though, is thoroughly similar.

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            That’s what culture is, really; slight tweaks of the human experience grounded in geography. We drink baijiu. We drink Pinot Grigio. We still drink. We execute a criminal by stoning. We execute a criminal by lethal injection. We still execute a criminal. We say say ‘Wo ai ni.’ We say ‘I love you.’ We still have affection. We live there. We live here. We still live. We just live a little bit differently.

On the Other Side of the World

Sometimes I feel an urge to stand up, shout, and toss my porcelain glass of baijiu against the wall. It’s not for anger or drunkenness or some irritable combination of the two. It’s just that sometimes I get this feeling in my stomach, right below my chest, like a massive balloon is about to burst, but can’t. Whatever it is can barely be contained without some sort of cathartic explosion. Sometimes I’m just overcome by reality. I’m overcome by the realization that what I’m firmly planted within is not a dream, but is actually very real, and just improbably incompatible with my previous notions of reality. Think of it like this: Imagine going to a foreign planet. The things you would see there would make no sense to you, yet they would be real. They would conform to all laws of physics and chemistry of that particular place. How about going 100 years forward in time? The things you would see would simply not line up, but still, they’d be real, super-real. And, all you could do is stare and scramble for a method to the madness. Real, but relatively speaking, not so real.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the nearby state of Chuxiong in search of new schools for Teach For China. The experience was eye opening, to say the least. Each school was unique, each had it’s set of problems, each had it’s needs. The most fascinating school, though, by a long shot, was Wanbi Middle School.

We left Guihua at noon. Before we departed, our local host warned us, “the road isn’t made yet.” We began to ascend the mountain around 12:30. We climbed higher and higher, a tiny speck inching up the side of an imposing cliff face. Our rickety manual Mitsubishi could barely exert enough force to wind around some of the more unnerving turns. Three thousand feet up, no pavement, barely enough room for one vehicle, 10 degree turns, no guard rails. I had to accept that my life was in the hands of the guy behind the wheel early on. I was happy to see that he wore a Buddha around his neck. We kept going higher and higher. The trees disappeared. Still, people lived there. The people up that high in the mountains seemed like ghosts in a way, heavenly beings. They were so utterly removed from the cities and towns on the ground. They lived in the clouds, really.

Around 3 pm we stopped on the side of the mountain. Our caravan included two Mitsubishis; one white, one green. We were nine total: Our team of five TFC staff, two local leaders, and our drivers. I hopped out of the car. In each direction was a slab of rock that looked like something out of The Odyssey. Flat-faced, gray with green patches, and almost straight up against the horizon. Even thousands of feet up, it gave you a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling of inescapability. I threw a rock down the face, which made me feel even uneasier. I went back to the car. Straight below, bounded on all sides, was the Yangtze River, which would terminate thousands of miles East in Shanghai. Here, the river is surrounded by natural monoliths, there by manmade ones.

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At around 6 pm, we finally managed to find a smooth dirt road. The sun had begun it’s descent long before, but it was still hot and bright. Hot, the place was just really hot. The Mitsubishi climbed over one last little bump and before our eyes, in the middle of absolute nowhere, was a city. Wanbi was dusty and dry, and hot. I’d been told nothing about our destination before arrival. As I scanned the horizon, I realized something very peculiar about the place. Every single building was under construction. This was no village either. This was a large, dusty town in the middle of nowhere, and everywhere you looked something was being built. Not a single edifice was fully constructed. Makeshift eateries and convenience stores popped up all over the place. Shirtless guys with all manner of construction contraptions prowled the streets. The citizens had a makeshift vibe too. They didn’t feel right there. It was all very Truman Show.The eeriness was accentuated by the fact that, as I’ve made rather clear, there was literally nothing but rocks and shrubs for hundreds of miles and the sunlight was waning.

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It took me a while to figure it out, but I wasn’t staring into the edge of the world. A massive Chinese company was under contract to dam the Yangtze. As a result, all the villagers had to be relocated uphill. The company was paying for every piece of destruction and construction. They were paying for a town to be created.

I’d like to point out something here: It’s very tempting to look at this scenario and vilify China as a heavy-handed violator of human rights, taking poor minority people from their homes and relocating them to a completely new life. First, as far as I could see, the project was necessary, from a developmental standpoint. Second, as far as I could see, the company is doing as right by the citizens as it can. Third, and most importantly, look around. Every big box strip mall, every highway, every Taco Bell, every dam that you see each day did not come without a cost. The land in which those conveniences reside was not blessed by god and set aside as special capitalist zones in year zero. We’ve got a gigantic manmade reservoir in Sherman, CT: Candlewood Lake, the biggest lake in Connecticut. When we’re out there in July on our boats, having a beer and shooting off fireworks, we often joke about the life that’s going on beneath the surface. We all know that thousands of acres of farmland were flooded to make the lake. It’s said that the ghosts of countless cows and pigs are still down there, living a slightly more watery existence. We see images in the news all the time of the one Chinese geriatric standing in front of a bulldozer that’s preparing to make dust of his home. If you think that same thing didn’t happen in your hometown, or all across America, you might be a little delusional. Capitalism has a price.

I digress.

We step out of the Mitsubishi. I feel like it’s going to explode. We are greeted by the principal and two administrators. The principal: A rail thin middle-aged man wearing giant glasses. He is the spitting image, both in appearance and mannerism, of Dale from King of the Hill. Administrator one: Toad from Frog and Toad. Utterly and completely. Administrator two: A tall, buff guy, who looks like a big, jacked tadpole. He’s almost bald, but hasn’t come to terms with it yet. Wholly amphibious, with tight facial features.

We’re hungry. We head to a makeshift restaurant near the school. There are two round tables set up and a tiny cooking station in the back. It’s still incredibly hot. Toad looks like he’s about to go down for the count. He’s sweated through two layers. To make matters hotter, we’ve chosen a hot-pot restaurant. Two tables, about twenty people (two women). As the endless object of curiosity, I get to sit between the principal and the amphibious guy. If you’ve paid attention to this blog, you know that principals and administrators in this part of China tend to be prodigious in the art of getting incredibly drunk. Let’s party. The sun is pretty much gone by now. The waitress brings a pot of boiling soup to the table and places it on a hot plate. The town is too new, I gather, for a stove. Despite the impending darkness, it’s still seeringly hot. Toad has shed his button down. The hot-pot is a bubbling brew of chickens’ heads, pig’s liver, stomachs, bones, tiny fish, and stuff that I try to block out of my mind. It’s brutally spicy. Each bite brings me closer to dehydration. Naturally, there is nothing to wash it all down with, except 55% baijiu. Luckily, there’s a lot. Toad is going to die, I’m sure of it.

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The principal gets going quickly. Soon, I’m ambushed from all angles. They’re pouring chicken guts and scalding soup into my bowl. They look at me and smile; “Here, take it. Here. Just try it once.” They’re coming at me with shot after shot of baijiu. Not just the principal and the jacked tadpole, but everyone. Even one of the women comes after me. They’re singing songs in strange dialect, my BAC is climbing, I swear I see Toad look me right in the eyes as he sinks his fangs into a still beating cow’s heart. It’s an overwhelming onslaught of hospitality and high-spirits. I stand up. I look around, like a tiny mouse in the middle of Times Square, and think to myself, “Where am I?” A cramped little room, high above the nearest anything. A fake town genuinely being built over my head. A bunch of the friendliest, strangest assortment of people I’ve ever met. Is it even real anymore? That’s when I get that feeling. I just want to smash my glass and scream, like a Jew on his wedding day. I’m overcome by the sheer existence of it all.

Five hundred years ago, you could go anywhere on earth and get this feeling. As things flatten out and foreign cultures meld together, this sensation is disappearing, there’s no doubt about it. The sensation at hand is discovery; the introduction of something so rare, strange, new and exciting that you can barely believe it. It comes about when you’re smacked in the face full force by a new reality. It pushes people to reconsider what they already know. It’s actually a quite scary feeling, a total release from the healthy confines of the “comfort zone.” But, it’s one of the most alive feelings a living person can have. Don’t be fooled by the compression of society or the complete coloring in of the world map, the sensation of discovery still exists, you just have to want to find it.

Differences

            I spend a great deal of time on here poking fun at being foreign in China. Admittedly, I find myself in so many preposterous situations, that sometimes it’s just too simple. For example: It’s a school decree that each teacher gets a birthday cake. I’m not entirely sure what the punishment is for not receiving a cake on your big day, but my principal seems more unyielding in regards to this rule than almost any other.

            Every time there’s a birthday, the staff rendezvous in the conference room and has a little get together. No one really ever eats the cake, which is kind of weird, considering the intense gravity with which its presence weighs upon our school. The principal, when offered a piece, always responds that he doesn’t particularly enjoy cake. There are always appetizers: small plates of peanuts, oil beans, packaged tofu, and maybe some date candies that taste like grass. Depending on who the birthday boy or girl is, there will be a variable amount of baijiu. Anyway, before the cake is cut and consumed or refused, a rather familiar tradition takes place.  Candles are thrust through the frosty exterior and set ablaze. Then, the honorable guest sidles up to the cake, face aglow, and with the help of a couple giddy teacher’s children, blows out the celebratory inferno.

             During the ritual, as has become Chinese tradition, the crowd sings “祝你生日快乐” (“Zhu ni shengri kuaile”) also know as “Happy Birthday to You,” first in Chinese, then in English. For many people in the room, it’s some of the only English they know.  During the second verse, everyone always looks awkwardly at me; like my presence has upped the stakes on verse two of the happy birthday song. It’s a tradition that would be carried out regardless of my improbable insertion into the room, but it’s a different now that I’m there. This, in a very broad nutshell, is my foreign experience in China.

            The fact of the matter is, the Chinese don’t really know what to do about this foreigner thing yet. Regions within the country are so homogenous that initial awe, followed by curiosity are the overwhelming reactions. Even in larger cities that are home to a diverse array of Chinese ethnic groups, any visible minority is often met with a camera flash. Book(s) could be devoted to this topic

            Throughout my young life, I’ve been a “majority.” I’m a white, straight, male American. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t get any easier than that. If you’re pulling the race card, that’s your ace of spades.  It’s near impossible to be a self-aware member of the majority. In fact, there’s really not even a word for it. “Majority” doesn’t feel right. What am I? A “privileged” class as opposed to a “protected” one. “Lucky” is probably the better word. When we study American society and history, we categorize heavily. We study the suffragist movement, the black panthers, Caesar Chavez, the Chinese exclusion act. The last time white males had a movement that didn’t involve shaved heads and swastikas, I really could not say. By studying our history in such a segmented manner, our differences are pushed at as. But, acknowledgement of race, as a stand-alone attribute is so fundamentally flawed. Obviously, people have been talking about this for decades and probably centuries, but it’s not something I really saw until it found me.

            An example in the same vein of the “Happy birthday” anecdote: You’re a student of any race in middle school. You’ve just scored the highest grade on an exam of great importance. Mr. Johnson calls you out to the class, lauds your achievement, encourages others to work as hard as you. The teacher is talking about you. Everyone looks at you, maybe in admiration, maybe in jealousy or maybe with a hint of spite.

            Now, you’re an African-American kid in a class with 20 white students. Let’s say you’re the son or daughter of African immigrants. You’re a first generation American. It’s 7th grade social studies and the unit is slavery. Literally speaking, you have absolutely no connection whatsoever to this regrettable era in American history. As the teacher talks about the underground railroad and maybe points to textbook pictures of abuses, the other 20 students in the class glance at you on the sly, wondering how this makes you feel, thinking to themselves, “man, this is awkward.” Is it possible, maybe, that the teacher feels the need to give this lecture on tiptoes because there happens to be someone who looks like the people in the pictures in the class? Everyone’s thinking that. I was in those classes, I did it too.

            Unlike in the first example, you’re getting this attention from your classmates, not for what you did or didn’t do, but from something that is connected to the color of your skin. Like slavery had/has a direct effect on you. Admittedly, the link between the two is shoddy at best, but the point is that race is all too often an overly emphasized characteristic. When we talk about the Mayflower, do the white kids get extra attention? I don’t recall it.  What it teaches kids, and it’s probably true in our country, is that your race defines you as much if not more then anything else. In America, the majority (generally speaking, Caucasians) are judged on the way they choose to act, look, or dress. Their choices are not preceded by color adjectives.  It’s an oppressive self-fulfilling prophecy.

            In the West, we often hear about the dawn of a “post-racial” society. Of course, we are far from that. However, in many parts of China, including where I live in Dali, what exists is a “pre-racial” society. While my school and region are almost 100% Bai minority and most of the surrounding areas are mainly Han Chinese, visibly, the difference is difficult to discern. I am not seeking to minimize the distinction between the two ethnic groups, but in comparison and background, foreigners are exceedingly rare. The demographic status quo has existed here for centuries.

             The way the overwhelming majority deals with race here is certainly similar, but tweaked slightly enough that it can be difficult to read into the parallels. The main difference is that American racism is/was institutional. It actually has played a part in our legal system. It’s generally nastier and more deep-rooted. Read: it has very real, impactful implications. In China, racism, while often very insensitive is more borne out of curiosity and ignorance. Being white (I won’t speak for other ethnic groups) won’t necessarily hurt you on a job application. In fact it will, more often than not, be in your favor.

             For example: People will often come up to me on the street and start speaking English, supposing that because I’m white, they can speak English with me. If I go to McDonald’s and order in decent Chinese, I will almost invariably be responded to in poor English. I get pictures taken of me, not because I’m famous, but simply because I am white. I always get the high price when I take a taxi. I allegedly “prefer” certain flavors of bubble tea, because, presumably, other white people have liked them in the past.

            I feel the need to note that this is obviously not all-inclusive. Like anyone, anywhere, the more exposure one has the more likely they are to (at least) understand if not accept. However, what I described is matter of fact in pre-racial society.

            So what’s the difference? As I see it, it’s deep. Modern day American prejudice is a function of history. It’s an amalgamation of images and memories and preconceptions. When you talked about slavery and glanced at the black student in the class, it wasn’t wholly about curiosity, it was about guilt. Deep-seeded guilt. It wasn’t necessarily about the fact that other people that looked like you subjugated other people that looked like him or her for centuries. It’s guilt because society still does and that’s when you first begin to realize it. You feel guilty that you have preconceptions, you feel guilty about what you say to your friends behind closed doors, and then, in a strange reversal of roles, you see yourself as the policeman holding the fire hose in Montgomery or the slimy slave master in antebellum South. Even though, of course, your family probably didn’t live below the Mason-Dixon Line and most likely came to this country long after slavery. Blood is on the inside, but skin is on the outside.

            In China, this phenomenon doesn’t exist. There’s no guilt, because there’s nothing to be guilty for. There are a whole host of preconceptions. When those preconceptions manifest, in the form of seemingly ignorant questions or seemingly endless photo ops, foreigners get pissed off. I get pissed off. I always think to myself, what if I went up to an Asian guy on the street in New York City and starting asking for directions Chinese? I couldn’t do that. That would evoke preconceptions, and above all else, it would be downright rude! What if, while working at a coffee shop, I recommended Juan Valdez to all patrons that spoke Spanish? It would just be… racist.

            Now, in part we don’t do these things because they are wrong. As America becomes even more diverse, stereotypes begin to dissipate. However, in large part we don’t do these things because of something called political correctness, aka “negative feelings you shouldn’t express to someone’s face.” The majority has developed acceptable and unacceptable ways to approach race. Those that are acceptable are “politically correct.” Those that are unacceptable might just be racist. Keep those to yourself.

            China, for one, is an incredible politically incorrect society. If you’ve gained a little weight, someone might tell you: “You’re fat and hard to look at,” to your face. If you’re just plain ugly, someone will probably tell you. Combine this built-in disposition with a still relatively untouched landscape of visible diversity and you get the incredibly direct attitude in regards to racial curiosity.

            The funny thing about, “pre-racial” is that it’s a whole lot like “post-racial.” It’s kind of like when you’re painting in kindergarten. You start with a white canvas, you color a bunch, and then by the end you’ve added so many colors that the paint has basically coalesced to an off-brown color. It’s homogeneity redux. Think about it like this: Every child, maybe around four or five, asks that question: “Why does such and such look different than me?” Most people have two functioning eyes, and when they see an obvious disparity, it’s only natural to ask. Depending on the adult they ask, the answer they receive may begin to determine their feelings on race, if they maintain any at all. But, the fact of the matter is, everyone is going to ask this question at some point in their life, because political correctness (and racism for that matter) are not things that are built in to us. In China, this question is often delayed many years. So, what appears to be racist or deliberately ignorant (if I can say that) is really just a complete lack of contact. There is simply no precedent outside of books and movies. In the United States, however, I often wonder what our excuse is.