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readers' submissions


The Day the Foreigners Came to Town

By Stacey LaFayette

September 4, 2010

 

It was dark when we flew into Zhengzhou, so I had no idea what it looked like. Were there hills? Mountains? Lakes? Rivers? I knew it was the capitol of the Henan Province in the middle of China, but that was about all. I knew that was where my step-grandmother Carol and I were going to be staying for the next five weeks, while she taught an ESL course. I didn’t know if they spoke Mandarin or Cantonese. I certainly didn’t know how to pronounce Zhengzhou. (Hint: say “Jungle Joe” without the “le.”)

Turns out, Zhengzhou is flat. Completely, one hundred percent flat. Flat, flat, flat. And dusty. We learned this a week into our stay, when a friend set up a speaking engagement for us at a countryside school. A Chinese man and woman picked us up outside our hotel in a shiny black town car, and while the chauffeur drove us through the flat, flat countryside to the school, we got to know them.

“I am Du Jun Mei,” the woman said. “You can call me Joy. I am your interpreter.”
“I am Wang Yong Jin,” said the man. “You can call me Dave. I am here to meet you.”
“I’m Carol,” said my step-grandmother, “and this is Stacey.”
“You are her granddaughter?” they asked, looking at me.
“Yes,” said Carol.
“No,” I said. “I’m her step-granddaughter.”
“You are her granddaughter?” Joy asked again.
“Step-granddaughter. Carol married my grandpa a few years ago.”
“She is a nice grandma?” Dave asked.
I sighed. “Yes.”

Turns out, family relations are a little blurry to the Chinese. I would meet dozens of students who would tell me all about their brothers and sisters, then I would find out later that they had no siblings, because, well, this is China. They were always referring to their cousins.

“We are going to the Ying Xie School,” Joy said. “It is a popular school. There are ten thousand students.”
My heart nearly stopped, and I gasped, “I have to speak…in front of…ten thousand….students?”
“No no no,” Joy said. “You only have to speak in front of two hundred. They are the best students.”

When we got to the school we were taken to the headmaster’s office and introduced to various important-looking people. One man was introduced as a party secretary, and I never did find out if that meant he was a secretary of the Communist party. They took us on a tour of the campus, and while we walked around, Joy explained that most of the students and the people in the town had never seen a foreigner, so Carol and I were the first white people they had ever laid eyes on. They acted towards us the way I would act towards just about anyone I had ever seen in a movie: shy and excited. They would stop whatever they were doing when we walked by, and followed us with their eyes. They would giggle and point at us and, as Dave translated to me, whisper, “Did you see the foreigners?” That was the day that I learned what lao wài meant, so that I could always know when people in China were talking about me.

Joy, Dave, the headmaster, and two teachers from the school took us out to lunch before we spoke to the students. We were driven to a local restaurant, where we were seated at a round table in a private room. The waiters brought out about twenty dishes of food and set them on the lazy Susan in the middle of the table, so that we could all take some of everything.

“Why is there so much food?” I whispered to Joy. “We can’t eat all of it.”
“It is the Chinese way to show hospitality to guests,” Joy said. “We want you to have as much food as you can eat. We would be embarrassed if you ate everything and there was no more food.”
There was beef, boy choy, carrots and radishes cut into spiky shapes, eggplant, mutton, mushrooms, and other dishes too foreign for me to identify.
“Have a duck feet,” one of the teachers said, placing a whole foot, skin and all, on my plate. “They are a delicacy.”
“Have some shark,” the other teacher said, helpfully giving me a squelchy scoop. “It is very delicious.”
“Have some rice,” the headmaster said, handing me a bowl of sticky rice. This, I ate with gusto.
“We will have a rest now,” Joy said to us when lunch was finished. They led us up the stairs of the restaurant to a room with two beds.
“You must be tired from the food,” a teacher said. “You will sleep now.”
Having never encountered a situation like this before, Carol and I merely stared at each other. Finally, Carol said, “We’re not tired. Can you show us the town?”

Joy, Dave, and the teachers looked surprised, and it took several rounds of “You must take a rest,” “No, we don’t need a rest” to convince them that we were serious. So we all walked outside along the dusty streets, and ate watermelon slices bought from a street vendor. Even in a small town, the traffic was madness: cars and bikes zooming every which way, oblivious to stoplights and pedestrians, each traveler thoroughly absorbed in their “every man for himself” mentality.

The townspeople stared at us, and I heard several of them whisper, “Lao wài.” To those people I would smile, wave, and say, “Ni hao.” That would make them giggle and whisper even more.

We returned to the school and gave our speeches. I don’t even remember what they were about, but I do remember the questions the students asked us afterwards as we sat at our table at the front of the auditorium.

“Do you like Harry Potter?”
“What do you think of the war in Iraq?”
“How can I lose weight?”
“Will you sing us an American song?” We sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but I think they had been hoping for something along the lines of the Backstreet Boys, who happened to be very popular in China just then.
Finally, one girl stood up and asked what turned out to be the last question: “Will you sign your name in my book?”

We shrugged and said sure, and with that, the entire auditorium stood up and stampeded towards our table. I thought, for a brief moment as my life flashed before my eyes, that we might make international news with this: Chinese-American relations strained: American women trampled to death in autographing frenzy.

For ten minutes we signed hundreds of autographs, until every student left satisfied. This delightful fame that had suddenly been thrust upon us kicked my ego into high gear. I imagined the students pulling out our autographs and showing them to all their friends, and then going home from school that night to show them to their parents and neighbors. I may live and die in anonymity in America, but I like to think that there’s a little village in the middle of China where everybody knows my name.


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