Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Waiguoren in the Post Office

My status in Beijing is as a waiguoren or "outside country person." There are many waiguoren in Beijing yet everywhere I go I get stared at. People don't think anything of staring outright and even when you stare back, they continue to stare. Wearing my school uniform helps a little bit because at least then people can place me. Having a place is very important in China, and uniforms are a big part of this. Everyone seems to feel the need to be part of some greater whole and to show where they belong. That said, people are often flabbergasted to see an American wearing a high school uniform riding a bike.

Today I encountered this again when I went to the post office. I wanted to mail a letter home to my sister and needed to buy postage and an envelope. I walked in to the post office next door to my building and waited in line. It is not a very Beijing thing to do to wait in line, but there were only two people and when a man who came in after me tried to cut in line, I shoved him out of the way. This was not at all rude and would be completely expected out of a Beijinger. People often think they can cut the waiguoren but are never offended when I act like I'm Chinese. Anyway, I successfully mailed my letter, despite the fact that the man who had tried to cut me repeated everything I said in Chinese to the postal worker after I said it. I was shocked to see her using an abacus to calculate the prices of different packages. I knew that abacuses were a Chinese invention but I didn't think they were in use anymore.

Speaking of acting like I'm Chinese, I seem to be picking up many of the Chinese tendencies since moving here. I wear long underwear under my pants and then take off my outer pants and jacket when I come inside so that the house won't get dirty from the dust outside. I drink hot water, a distinctly Chinese tendency that results from many Chinese people believing that cold food and drinks interfere with digestion. I think that's just an old wives' tale, but hot water seems to do a better job of clearing the dust from the back of my throat. I shove people when I want to get on and off the subway or bus, which is the only way to counteract being shoved myself. My sense of style has even changed since I came to China, represented by a pair of overly colorful sneakers I bought for the equivalent of eleven US dollars yesterday.

Yet despite all these things, I am still most definitely a waiguoren. People often don't realize that I am speaking Chinese when I try to talk to them and tell me that they don't speak English. My accent is undoubtedly horrible and people don't expect me to be able to speak Chinese. Will and I play Frisbee during recess most days and a few brave students will come to talk with us or ask to learn how to play. Recently we also started playing the Chinese version of hackey-sack which is incredibly fun and doesn't require as much space of Frisbee. We were tossing a disk the other day and one of the elementary schoolers was just staring at us. Like many of the small kids he had a bean bag to play with. They like to play this game where they lob the bean bags at each other and then run away. He was just standing with his bean bag and staring so we asked him if he wanted to play with us. He said no and ran away. Later, he came back to watch again and Jasmine motioned him over to come talk with us. Again he ran away, but she followed and brought him back. He asked her what we were playing and she told him it was a Frisbee. (This was in Chinese of course. Most of the elementary schoolers can't speak any English.) She asked him if she could introduce him to Will and me, and he replied that he was afraid of foreigners. This would be unheard of in the US, but here everybody looks the same, and many children have never talked to a foreigner before. Eventually, he came over and shook Will and my hands' before running away. The entire interaction was exceedingly cute, especially seeing 6' 3" Will bending down to shake hands with a first grader. I can only imagine how scared the kid must have been of the blond haired, blue eyed, foreign giant.

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