“So how does it feel to be home?” – this is usually the first question people ask me. And it’s difficult to answer. I don’t really know how it feels to be home. I mean, it feels like home. It’s Dunmore. It’s Pennsylvania. It’s America. There are sandwiches. There’s pizza. There’s pasta. There’s family. There’s friends. Dunmore will always be my “home,” but I have had so many experiences in China, and I do look forward to going back.
“How was China?” is usually the 2nd question people ask me.
“It was different” is the response I have come up with after hours of considering what should be my “all-in-one” response. Obviously, I can talk for hours about China…and I have. Every time something happens now, I am making parallels to my China life, and I’m sure it has to be getting at least a little irritating to my parents. But China has been my life for the past year, and it’s impossible to go back to my normal life without continuing to make the comparisons.
When I was in the airport for 12 hours in LAX, I was completely caught off guard when a night worker went out of his way to help me find an outlet to charge my computer. “Oh, you can speak English…” is what I wanted to say.
When I pay 10 dollars for a cab ride, I immediately calculate how much further I could have gone in a cab in China for the same price. (much further…)
When I saw a group of Asians at the bar the other night, I had to hold back the urge to walk over and ask them if they were Chinese.
And that last comment brings me my next “observation” of life as a foreigner in China:
Clearly, I am an American. Well, when I say clearly, this may not seem to be the case in the eyes of many Chinese who 1 – like to classify all foreigners as “waiguoren”-foreigners. There is no need for them to actually give them a specific nationality. And 2 – many Chinese refuse to believe that I am American based on my dark complexion and facial hair (thank you Italian heritage). Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I’m an American. It just matters that I am a foreigner, and because of that, I am “special” in China. In my small town, everyone turned their heads. Little kids always yelled to their cousins and friends. In the capital, it was easier to go under the radar for some amount of time. But, that was just because they are more accustomed to seeing foreigners. However, if I were to make an attempt to communicate with a Chinese person in Changsha (the capital), they would be just as warm and open to associating with me as any person in my small town. I often couldn’t resist going over to tables full of people I didn’t know and offering a “cheers” to them as a sort of “nice to meet you” offering. This often resulted in a much longer conversation than anticipated as well as free drinks.
“You know, I’m going to expect you to buy me free drinks when I get home,” I warned my American friends. “My Chinese friends always buy me free drinks. Even people who I don’t know…” Of course, this is not a reality. I would never expect that. In America, I am an American, not a “waiguoren.” And even if I were a foreigner in America, we have plenty of foreigners. For the most part, people don’t look twice at seeing a foreigner. Why would we? But in China, it’s different. Through a flood of Chinese people (in Hunan), you can easily spot the foreigner who stands head and shoulders above all others. I mean, I am average height in America (about 5’9″) but in China, I’m expected to play center on the basketball team–I don’t post up, people. Come on..
Bottom line: It means something to be a foreigner in Hunan, China. You are different by default, and they respect that. If you ever need a boost of confidence, take a trip to Hunan. You will be considered a meinv (beautiful girl) or shuaige (handsome boy) by all. But, if you don’t like attention, then it may be best to stick to the big cities (that is, if you are, indeed, considering a trip to China).