My Elderly Neighbors, originally uploaded by bexadler.

China, for the most part, is a homogenous society, as is much of the world outside of the United States. For this reason, foreigners here stand out like a sore thumb.Β In China, this is especially exaggerated because China was closed to foreigners for such a long time, and has only recently embraced tourism and the opening of its borders to foreigners. And so it is that if you have ever wondered what it would feel like to be an animal in a zoo, all you need to do is come to China. That is what I feel like at all times. People stare at me while I eat. They point at my hairy arms on the bus. They look into my grocery cart to see what it is I am buying. They nudge each other as I walk past on the street and ask each other, “Did you see the laowai?”

So it is no surprise that most people at my apartment complex recognize me when I am out and about. In the beginning I think they thought I was just here on vacation so they paid little attention to me (aside from the normal curiosity, as described above). But I’ve been living in this same apartment complex for nearly a year, and I think they’ve decided I’m sticking around, so they have begun to be friendly toward me. There are some real characters here and they are some of the few people who put a smile on my face in these dreary Shenyang days.

***

As you all know, I am a pretty hard-core runner. The Chinese do not run – at least not from what I can tell. And they definitely do not run when it is only 20F outside. This provides endless amusement to all of the residents in my apartment complex. When people see me they always say something in Chinese, which I do not understand, but I imagine to be, “Hey! You’re that crazy girl who’s always running around here, aren’t you?” I gather this from the jogging arm motions they make when they are talking to me and then pointing at me. I just say yes because I do not know what else to say. They seem satisfied with this response and move on.

Some of those who get the most amusement out of my daily jogs are a group of elderly people who I like to think of as my cheering committee (pictured above). These old folks, like many of the retirees in China, like to sit out in the sun playing cards and chattering on during the afternoons. Every time they see me come out in my running gear (and sometimes, even when I am in my work gear), they make the jogging motion and say a bunch of nonsense. Then they all laugh, and I go running. Each time that I pass them by, the old guy shouts something at me and they cheer. It makes me laugh and keeps me smiling throughout my run. I’m sure they are mocking me, but I do not care.

***

There are security guards at each entrance gate of our apartment complex. They wear camo fatigues and do military drills each morning. The drills are essentially them doing some jumping jacks and marching back and forth for 3 minutes. Each time that I pass them by on my morning runs, I cannot help but think how emasculating that must be for them (I’m sure it actually doesn’t bother them at all – they think I’m the crazy one). They have noticed though, and they always comment as well when I enter or leave the complex. If I am in my jogging attire, they make the jogging motion and are probably asking me how far I am going to run today, but I do not know what they are saying and so I just wave and move on. When I am in my normal clothes, they will say an exaggerated “Ni hao!” I assume it is supposed to be with a foreigner’s accent, but it sounds the same to me. I always say “Ni hao” back, and they, of course, laugh.

***

There is a little shop on the first floor of my building that is run by a husband and wife. They are THE sweetest people I have met here. When I returned to China after winter break, the first time I entered the shop, the man was so excited to see me, which is not a reaction I expected from anyone here, let alone the convenience store man. He grabbed my arm and led me to the back room, where I assume he and his wife live. I did not know what was going on, until he came back out carrying his brand new baby boy! He was such a proud papa and was overjoyed when I offered one of the few Chinese sentences I know: “Ta hen piao liang.” (He is beautiful.) While it is not correct at all, I think he understood my point.

In recent weeks, he has become the makeshift spokesman for my community, perhaps because they know I frequent his shop. For his role as the spokesman, he has begun picking up English words here and there and trying them out on me. I think he learns new phrases as the need arises. For example, one day I saw one of the security guys in his shop, and the very next day the shopkeeper asked me what I do for a living. I am sure he was told to ask me because everyone is dying to know where I am from and what I do. As I said, they are curious kittens around here. The funniest part about his little inquiries is that he always seems completely shocked that his questions elicit actual responses. Luckily, most of his questions are things that I am able to answer in Chinese as well, so when he does not understand my English responses, I can tell him in Chinese also.

***

This is what you find in China when you are in villages and smaller cities. These are the people when they are not too busy to be kind and too crowded to be polite. It is not often found in the stinking, polluted cities where most people have to live to work. But if you look hard enough, or stay long enough, a community does begin to take shape, and they are wonderful. When I look back on China, I hope that these are the people and the memories that stay with me.

*laowai=foreigner or outsider
*ni hao = hello

Advertisements