Friday, June 06, 2014

Les étrangers.

It is inevitable, is it not, when one is in another country, the way we remark upon our differences, large and small?

Huh, noodles for breakfast again! we say. Or why does that man have his shirt rolled up so that we can all look at his belly? Am I supposed to look at his belly? But there it is, right there, right there where his shirt is rolled up.

Like that.

Or the time we were in an elevator in Xi'An, and the guy in there with us glanced at us, then looked back in a series of lengthening looks. He turned to his friend and they started chatting animatedly.

He probably thinks you look like Karl Marx, I said to my husband the historian, who is (a) bearded, and (b) a socialist, not that they would know that, except that maybe the beard implied it?

My son said, That's exactly what he just said. He said, He looks like Karl Marx. 

And that's when he leaned in for a selfie with us. In the elevator.

In China, we were the odd ones. We were strange and exotic. My tall, curly-headed bearded son was, of course, used to it, having lived in China, at different times, for more than a year. I loved seeing how people responded to him, once he spoke, and how he was able to negotiate so capably in this place so far from home, in a language so different than his home language. None of this grace was an option for us.

If you want to say 'thank you,' it's 'xie xie,' he instructed us. We were in a grocery store in Beijing, our very first morning. We wandered past the vegetables, past the dried fruit, the practically infinite varieties of dried mushrooms, past the nuts, practicing this tiny phrase in a spectrum of pronunciation manglements. A lady sitting by one of the stalls smiled. Hilarious. I smiled back, because it really was.

The historian said 'xie xie' the whole trip long, like a champ. I did too, but more hesitantly and less frequently. No amount of phrase-mongering would obliterate our strangeness, our otherness. It was right there, written on our faces.

In Rilong, in western Sichuan, I admired the canvas shoes of one of the young women working at the guest house.  They had hefty tread, black, a black toecap, army green canvas uppers, laced up.

My son translated: my mom likes your shoes. Where can you get them?

She said we could find them anywhere, and when we did find them in a little shop on the main road, a small group clustered around, watching while I tried them on. A local man laughed, although not in a mean way: her feet are bigger than my feet! he said. Back at the guest house, when I came down to dinner, the woman with the admirable shoes took a look at what I was wearing: cotton trousers, a light shirt and light cardigan, canvas shoes. She entered some text into her smart phone, then showed me the English translation, which read something like this: I am worried about the thinness. Please put on more thickness so you are not becoming cold. 

So much the clumsy-footed stranger, and, in a corollary, evidently unable to dress myself appropriately. It's possible that I had to rescue myself from feeling almost existentially incapable a little bit every day. I found this to be one of the recurrent threads in the whole narrative of the trip. It was unsettling, but then, I think I knew that it would unsettle me. I had a talk with myself about it long before we departed.

At the moment, I think this kind of experience is useful. It's useful to be reminded that you're are not the prince of everything, or the princess. That the world is not yours to command, that you are every bit as strange to some people as some people are to you. Part of the grace of this kind of experience--the experience where one feels lost and graceless and incapable--is to be reminded that you live in the world and the world is not made in your image. The world is enormous. The big world contains you and you might as well keep your eyes open, to see every last strange, unfamiliar bit of it you can.

I think you can see why these nice people wanted
a picture with me. Because I am a celebrity, obvs.
(Xi'An City Wall)


  1. Xie xie, HT. I can't get enough of the China posts and pictures.

  2. First, I love this picture of you. And also, but not less, I love this post. I think of all the kids I've met in the past few years, in college and more recently at the gym, kids who are not native to this country, and I marvel as I've become more aware of how different their experience of living here is from mine, because they are the different ones. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to move to a place where you don't speak the language, don't understand the people...all of that. Love, love, love seeing China through your eyes.

  3. There is such a kind intelligence in your approach to life. I loved reading this.



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