Fuck! Fuck fuck FUCK!
My knucles hurt from punching the wall. My throat hurts from the half-hour or so I spent shouting obscenities into a pillow. This goes far beyond ordinary annoyance. It is somewhere between anger and heartbreak.
Here I was thinking that since this was my next-to-last week of daytime classes, and since I only had a minimal number of evening classes to make up, I would be out of Harbin by the end of June. I’d have a week or so to start looking for an apartment in Beijing, and then I’d be home in Philadelphia with my friends.
It was all planned out: I would eat Indian food for breakfast, Mexican food for lunch, and pizza or Vietnamese food for dinner. I would have a chocolate milkshake with every meal. I would be surrounded by people who were either, like me, not Chinese, or who, like me, saw nothing remarkable in my not being Chinese.
Then the school told me that when they had cencelled three weeks of evening classes around the end of June and start of May because of SARS, they had in fact been using a radically nonstandard definition of the word “cancel,” and that all three weeks would have to be made up. And that I was going to be here for a few weeks longer than I’d wanted.
Before I came to China, my Chinese was decent, but not good enough that I was able to understand other people’s conversations without putting in at least a little effort. After nearly a year here, I can’t turn it off: even when I’m trying to ignore people, even when I’m busy reading or having another conversation, I still hear and understand what people are saying, injected straight into my brain without English as an intermediary.
I really kind of wish I didn’t.
It’s usually a background hum, the same as it would be in an English-language setting. But certain words – waiguoren, eluosiren, sulianren, laomaozi* – jump out whether I’m listening or not. And every now and then someone will come up and say “laomaozi?” to my face, experimentally, perhaps to see whether I speak Chinese or not. I don’t give away any anger, and so they walk off, assuming that I don’t understand that they’ve just called me the nastiest thing it’s possible to say to a white person. Sometimes they just call out “HAAAA-LOOOOOOO?” mockingly as I go by, and erupt into spurts of laughter regardless of whether or not I reply with a “Hello.”
People in Harbin like to make generalisations. This is a generalisation in and of itself, but it is true 99 times out of 100, in my experience. It was something I had hoped to break people of when I first came here: for example, if I ordered dumplings in a restaurant only to hear someone say “Oh, foreigners like dumplings,” I used to turn around and say “There are a few billion foreigners; I’m not their representative.”
Since then, though, I’ve given up. I am, whether I like it or not, a representative, not just of Brendan O’Kane, not just of Philadelphia, not just of America, not even just of all white people, but of all foreigners. If I am impolite to someone here, he will return home and tell all his friends about the rude foreigner he met that day. Conversely, if I am polite, and chat with someone in fairly-OK Chinese, he will be impressed, and possibly remember to tell people about the nice foreigner. This is a system which I understand; the problem is that most of the other foreigners in the city either don’t get it or don’t care, and I can’t hold up Harbiners’ regard for foreigners on my own.
There are days, believe me, when I want to be rude. There are times when people stare at me on the street, or start talking about me even after it’s apparent that I can speak Chinese and understand everything that they’re saying, when I would like to turn around and ask them how, as citizens of the fifth-largest city in China, they can be so backwards and ignorant.*
I’d like to tell the high-school kids on the street who haaaaalooooo? me that I did not come to China to have people take the piss.
I’d occasionally like to ask people how it is that they can instantly identify me as “a Russian pimp, or maybe just a drug dealer” when they don’t know me, don’t know where I’m from, and apparently just plain don’t know shit.
I’d like to ask the people staring at me with a mixture of curiosity and bovine stupidity what’s so strange. There are – or were, before SARS – enough foreigners in Harbin that they’ve certainly seen plenty before. Most of the movies they watch are American films dubbed into Chinese. Probably about 3/4ths of the advertisements on billboards and smaller signs around the city feature white models. And yet there they are, staring dully as if I were a carnival sideshow.
But nobody would listen if I did: they never listen to foreigners. And if they did listen, all they would remember was that there was a foreigner, and he was rude to them.
There are days when I just wonder why I came here, and why I’m planning to stay in China another year. Why I’m planning to devote a significant portion of the next few years – hell, a significant portion of my life to studying a language spoken around here by people who for the most part seem to have little but amused contempt for me.
And then I open up my book of Bai Juyi poems, or read a bit of Hong Lou Meng, or talk to any one of my many Chinese friends, and remember. I’m doing this because I’ve wanted to be fluent in Chinese ever since I was 5 or 6. I’m doing this because I love the language, and I love the literature, and I love the culture. I’m doing this because I want to do it.
I just need reminding of that sometimes.
And Harbin is not China, and Harbin will not last much longer for me, anyway.