A Birthday in Dalian

I arrived at my birthday party a little late – taxis can be hard to find on Friday night. However, nearly all my colleagues and coworkers were there. (“I will be there on time,” they had all said to me, which I had suspected was a standard euphemism, but it turns out they had all meant it.)

When I got there, though, a few of my “foreign friends” – Thai, Indian, Malaysian Chinese – were hanging out outside, smoking. Some of them spoke Chinese, some of them didn’t. They quickly acquired a bottle of whisky.

One of my colleagues walked by and I introduced her around. “Out here is the English Corner,” I joked. “How come you don’t speak Chinese?” she asked, smiling – a fair and unfair question.

“How chuuuu!” replied one of my friends. (That’s how he says hao chi, “delicious.”). Grasping the situation, my coworker smiled and strolled away. She does speak English quite well, but maybe she didn’t have the heart for this kind of mangling of Chinese.

Eventually the group made a large circle, and I straddled the invisible line between my two groups of friends. It wasn’t about racial lines because plenty of my “English-speaking” group of friends are ethnically Chinese. It was that half the group was comfortable in English, the other half wasn’t.

My Chinese colleagues, but for a few that are truly fluent in English, often preface interactions by saying, “My English is poor.” This is a face-saving device, but they then can go on a long (and fluent) explanation of why their English is poor.

By this time, you’re often thinking — while you were giving me a perfectly grammatical explanation of why your English is so bad, we could have been having a real conversation! Their embarassment with English makes us both feel more comfortable in Chinese.

I, and my friends who are learning Chinese, have the opposite approach. “I can speak Chinese!” we proclaim, mangling our tones and pronunciation. I tend to have people thinking I’m fluent in the language, until that inevitable moment when I mix up “towel” with “scarf,” or “rice porridge” with “Jay Chou”. That’s when I start my apologetic rant. Sometimes people spare my feelings – sometimes they don’t.

Fortunately, that night, everyone’s happiness, the friendly atmosphere of the bar, a few people’s willingness to move between languages – made the evening an absolutely lovely one. Everyone had a great time, ate cake, sang “Happy Birthday” in two languages…it was a fabulous 23rd.

At one point, my younger colleagues were talking about the boys in attendance. A blond guy I didn’t know showed up, and they thought he was cute. To me he was average-looking but blond hair holds a deep fascination for both my current and former roommates. (Both my ex-roommates expressed a deep desire to meet and marry a Northern European).

“Very cute, but not tall enough,” they judged.

I tried to do one of my male friends a favour. He was sitting next to the blond guy – he’s single, Indian, and very, very handsome. “Hey,” I said to a few of my young colleagues, “that guy is single. Do you think he’s cute?”

“Nah, I don’t like Indians,” they all said. “We like the blond guy.” Happily, they softened after my friend generously bought a round of drinks.

It brought me back to how earlier, at dinner, my friend was telling me, “I just don’t like Chinese guys that much. They’re not very tall or muscular…I just don’t go for that type.” I pointed out that there were plenty of Chinese guys in that very restaurant that were tall and muscular, but it didn’t seem to take.

Happily, that very night she got a little crush on one of my Chinese coworkers, a gregarious guy with a broad Australian accent from his study abroad.

I liked seeing all our mental barriers opening up a notch.


Looking Different

Today, there’s a middle-aged man waiting at the bus stop. My guess is, he isn’t used to seeing foreigners, because he is staring at me, in that open way I suspect is reserved for exotic animals and white girls. He keeps staring. I look him right in the eyes, and he keeps staring, unfazed. I look away, and I can feel his eyes on me. What is he thinking?

I move behind a wall of the bus shelter. He walks right around it and keeps staring. He actually keeps this up for about three minutes flat.

I want to tell him, “I feel uncomfortable when you stare.” (Especially when it’s a man!) But isn’t curiosity about foreigners a good thing? It is in theory. It is, but it makes me feel like I’m in a zoo.

When I walk down the street, people toss out “Hellos” left and right. The first day I arrived, my roommate said, “Don’t answer them. It’s rude.”  “Is it?” I asked. Then I found that “Hellos” have numerous meanings. Mostly, it just means “Hey, you’re white!” Often, it means “Buy my fruit!” “Take my taxi!” Sometimes, people yell “Hello!” and crack up. They’re laughing at themselves, but I feel that my language is the joke.

I went to visit my roommate’s hometown, and when we walked through an alley of pottery sellers, I got the regular chorus of “Hellos”. Translating this as “Buy my stuff,” I smiled and walked on by, but my roommate said, “Hey, you should answer them!” I had become the rude one.

Once teenage girls crept up to me on the beach, when I was in a pack of colleagues, and shouted “Hello!” very loudly. I responded by saying 你好 (hello in Chinese). They screamed in shock.

I arrive at work and walk up to the elevator. The cleaning ladies are standing around, chatting. They get into the elevator with me. “Morning!” one of them says, cracking herself up and giving me a hug. I smile back.

Then, one of the ladies reaches out and grabs my hair. Does she know she’s making me uncomfortable? She strokes my hair and discusses it with her friend, whose hair looks exactly like mine.

I simply don’t understand – is someone being rude? And if they are, how should I respond? And if someone truly is being rude, how can I tell them how I feel? I’m at sea in a series of social signals I can’t make sense of.

And, despite all those things, how can I deal with my own feelings about how people see me? Simply relishing the attention, as many foreigners here do, feels off to me. First, I don’t honestly enjoy it. And second, even if I did, the attention itself feels a bit unfair.

I would like to show people that Canadians are friendly and nice, and like China.  But I can’t decide when to play along with how people treat me, and when not to.