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.

Comments (16)

  1. hnjjz wrote::

    Talking about total strangers in front of their face doesn’t seem to be as big a taboo in China as it is in the US. All the emphasis on “face” in Chinese culture seems to be reserved only for people you know or you interact with. I’ve encountered this type of things all over China, and I’m Chinese. So if it makes you feel better, it doesn’t just happen to you (or other foreigners) and it doesn’t just happen in Harbin.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2003 at 11:18 am #
  2. megan wrote::

    my impression was that chinese people really admire white people. at least they admire anything american. when i go back to china, people pay a lot of attention to me too, even though i’m chinese, simply because i don’t dress or act the same way they do. china is not the most popular tourist destination, especially not harbin. the people there rarely get to see anyone who is different from them. my guess would be that when saying “HAAAA-LOOOOOOO”, they’re just being curious. the same about the background talk of you possibly being russian. of course there are exceptions, but i think it’s mostly curiousity. the chinese don’t go by the same standards of politeness that americans follow. what might seem obnoxious and impolite to you might seem perfectly acceptable to them. i mean, my grandmother spits chicken bones on the table during dinner and asks to see my excrement so she can see if i’m healthy or not. the chinese are very practical. she’s not being rude or anything. it’s just part of chinese culture, no matter how crude the rest of the world may think of it. a lot of chinese people i know would seem really strange to normal americans. they way they act is very open and blunt. in china, if someone told me i was fat, i wouldn’t be offended at all. it’s just that person’s perception of things. but in the US, if someone said that to me, i’d look at them in horror and amazement. i’d probably start scratching and pulling air soon afterwards. but this will probably never happen since i wear size 1 pants. i’m just saying that maybe since you didn’t grow up in china and you don’t neccessarily understand all aspects of chinese behavior after one year, you might be taking things a bit seriously. or not. i guess that’s up to you.

    but hey, if someone just told me i’d have to stay there another 3 weeks, i’d be pretty mad too. indian food sounds really good right about now…. hope you enjoy that last couple of weeks with your kids. and i’m not trying to lecture, really. just trying to give my perspective. =)

    enjoy your summer.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2003 at 11:21 am #
  3. Jade Lee wrote::

    I think the problem is that China is not an immigration country. The race is not diversified. There is nothing to do with popular tourist destination.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2003 at 11:33 am #
  4. James wrote::

    “laomaozi” is a term I’ve never heard, not surprising since I probably know about 50 words in Mandarin. Does it mean “old hat”? Why is it so insulting? Just curious, insults are always interesting. I enjoy your writing.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2003 at 12:05 pm #
  5. Brendan wrote::

    Megan – I can tell when people are saying “Hello” out of curiousity. They tend not to be the noes who’re standing in a group of their peers, snickering, and going “Hey, check this out!”
    You are, however,quite right to observe that I’m just wigging out.

    Lu – for some reason that link isn’t working for me. But yeah; I know what you mean.

    James – the best gloss of “laomaozi” I can make is “Hairball.” It’s the way they typically refer to Russians around here, and since they don’t like Russians in these parts – well, hell, I don’t like most of the Russians I’ve met here, either – it’s not a friendly term.

    Thursday, June 19, 2003 at 3:00 am #
  6. lu t wrote::

    about being the representative of all foreigners in china, don’t mind the chinese. they know that you don’t represent the whole foreign population, they talk with generalizations so they can “show off” how much they know by listing only one or two examples.
    there are probably a lot more chinese in the US than americans in china, but whe i left china, my teacher/peers were still telling me to behave well in the US and “为国争光”, as if i was the first chinese to ever go to america or something.
    it’s just their national pride, can’t help it.

    maybe wearing that shirt on
    could make the ppl stop harassing u. ;)

    Thursday, June 19, 2003 at 5:00 am #
  7. hnjjz wrote::

    Brendan, the reason you can’t access Lu’s link is because is banned in China. It’s a popular message board type of place for overseas Chinese. You’ll need to use a proxy to access the story. Like Wayne said, it’s hilarious and it’s really approriate for your situation :-)

    Thursday, June 19, 2003 at 7:12 am #
  8. hnjjz wrote::

    Actually, here’s the story:


    快报讯 (实习生邢媛媛) 昨天,当一名身穿印有?#32473;中国人十条告诫?#31561;内容的T恤衫的外籍男子进入刘长兴饭馆吃饭时,引起了在场所有人的不满。事后他竟称自己是在对这件衣服产生了?#24189;默感?#21518;买下穿上身的。在众人的抗议下,这名外籍男子最后承认了错误,表示以后不再穿这件衣服了。



    在派出所,记者看到,这位外籍男子与女翻译都显示出一副若无其事的样子。当记者问女翻译对此有何看法时,该女子回答?#19981;知道?#12290;记者又问该外籍男子为何要穿这件衣服,该男子说:�I DO NOT TRUST YOU(我不相信你)。?#32463;过市局的两位外事科长的长达一个多小时的调解,该外籍男子终于承认了错误。


    Thursday, June 19, 2003 at 7:20 am #
  9. Brendan wrote::


    Thursday, June 19, 2003 at 10:18 am #
  10. wayne wrote::

    lu t: that story is hilarious. never mind that they never get into why demand for such a shirt would exist, nor that it was probably some enterprising chinese person who made the t-shirt and was making a killing selling them to exchange students going through some backpacker hostel in kunming. the important thing is that the dirty laowai learned his lesson.

    Thursday, June 19, 2003 at 12:11 pm #
  11. lu t wrote::

    hehe, maybe i can get u one when i go back to kunming ;P

    Friday, June 20, 2003 at 3:45 am #
  12. Prince Roy wrote::

    you can find a translation here:

    Saturday, June 21, 2003 at 4:35 am #
  13. Adam Morris wrote::

    I wish I had seen that T shirt thing ealier. I can’t stop laughing. It’s so typical that Chinese can’t respect this kind of humor.

    Hey, I know a shop near here that will put whatever letters on the back and or front. I have one that says,



    Saturday, June 21, 2003 at 5:37 am #
  14. Adam Morris wrote::

    I wish I had seen that T shirt thing ealier. I can’t stop laughing. It’s so typical that Chinese can’t respect this kind of humor.

    Hey, I know a shop near here that will put whatever letters on the back and or front. I have one that says,



    Saturday, June 21, 2003 at 5:37 am #
  15. Brendan wrote::

    Here’s a translation of the article, followed by a couple of notes:

    Foreigner Wearing “Admonitions to the Chinese” T-Shirt Enrages Nanjing Citizens

    NEWS FLASH (Xing Yuanyuan, Intern): Yesterday, when a foreign national wearing a T-shirt printed with “10 Commandments for the Chinese” walked into Liu Changxing’s restaurant, the other customers in the restaurant were offended. He later said that he bought the shirt because he found it “humourous.” After the people protested, the foreigner finally admitted his mistake, and said that he would never wear the shirt again.

    According to a Mr. Xu, around 12 yesterday, he and his friend Chen came to Liu Changxing’s restaurant for lunch, and had just sat down when a foreigner and his translator came into said restaurant and sat down facing Mr. Xu and Mr. Chen. Suddenly, Mr. Xu saw that on the back of the foreigner’s T-shirt, there were Chinese words: “10 Commandments for Chinese People.” “(1) Thou shalt not stare at foreigners. (2) Thou shalt not say “HELLO? OK?” to foreigners. (3) Thou shalt not let foreigners stay in cheap hotels,” and other such instructions to Chinese people for how to treat foreigners.

    Mr. Xu and Mr. Chen became indignant, and demanded that the foreigner remove the offending shirt. At this time, the other people in the restaurant also saw the shirt, and demanded an apology from the foreigner. The foreigner had his female translator call 911 to report that there were people harassing them. Finally, the foreigner, his translator, and all other involved parties were taken to the Huaihai Rd. police station for questioning.

    At the station, a reporter saw that this foreigner and his translator were acting as if nothing had happened. When the reporter asked the translator how she felt about this, she replied that she didn’t know. When the reporter asked the foreigner why he would wear such a shirt, the foreigner replied “I do not trust you.” After over an hour of questioning by two officers from the city’s Foreign Affairs Office, the man and woman finally admitted that they were in error.

    Through his translator, the man said that he had bought the shirt in Kunming, Yunnan Province, and that he had found the shirt – which originally had the characters printed on it – funny, so he bought it. He promised that he would never wear the shirt again.

    Saturday, June 21, 2003 at 6:50 am #
  16. Michael wrote::

    Can I get a translation? My poor brain can’t read Chinese!

    Saturday, June 21, 2003 at 12:44 pm #