July 27, 2009

Foreigner 外国人 Waiguoren

In smaller, less touristic Chinese towns and cities, a western face stands out in the crowd. People notice, they stare, they comment. They say "waiguoren", point, encourage their children to look. They say "hello", if they are bold. Waiguoren means outside country person. A regular contact will come to call me "Lao Wai", old foreigner. As a middle aged woman, here in the U.S. no one notices me, I am invisible. I like that. So being so conspicuous is hard for me. An American studio mate in Jingdezhen said he thought it was like being a movie star, likening his look to Jack Nickolson. I never liked it, or fancied myself a double for Demi Moore (with Patrick Swayze making throwing look oh so sexy). I tired of the feeling that I represented nothing more than money, dollar sign on the forehead. I sometimes hid my face under my umbrella. But I learned to smile (oh common ground) and say "Ni hao" or answer the hello with "Do you speak English?" in Mandarin. My speaking in Chinese is a conversation starter.
  • On the small street behind the campus a kid on his bike nearly fell off with his jaw agape when he saw me on my bike. I wished I had a picture of his face.
  • I heard a shopkeeper tell his wife to raise the prices...it's a foreigner.
  • A taxi driver insisted that my eyes were not blue enough.
  • On my last day young girls I passed said "waiguoren" to each other and I countered with "我不是外国人,我是美国人:I am not a foreigner, I am an American." They were stunned and giggling.
The advantage of staying an extended time in one place, going to the same fruit seller or art supply store every day is that you become a person, not just a curiosity, after a while. A greying American woman, traveling alone, riding a bike with clay on her jeans is an oddity. After a couple of weeks of buying my pineapple quarter on a stick and oranges from the same woman, she finally asked me how old I was and we had a halting conversation despite her local accent.

And there are friends. When curiosity about a foreigner on campus and in town gives way to new found friendship forged in two languages and common interests. This is a hurdle worthy of the effort. More on friends later.


  1. That's so fascinating. They say "utlendinga" --person from outside the land or country -- in Iceland. While it had acquired a derogatory connotation, you can have older people (like a bus driver out in the countryside) ask you or address you as "utlendinga" to your face.

  2. Greetings from a neighbor in Korea. Rie and I are doing well and expecting baby #1 in November. I enjoyed your thoughts on being a "Gai Koku Jin" as they pronunce it in Japanese. In India, I felt overwhelmed because I always had a crowd of 10 or so men following me around and taking turns practicing their few English phrases with me. But, once I accepted the fact that I was the most popular person in the country and everybody wanted a few minutes of my time, I began to think "How would Michael Jackson react to his fans?" This helped.