Wàiguórén: A Foreigner in China

My first time in China was scary, exhilarating and completely different from my home. Most of my family and friends thought my decision to come, live and teach in China was interesting at best and foolish at worst. Until I actually landed in the plane at the Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport in Zhengzhou, Henan China, it didn’t hit me how life changing this experience was about to be. Being the person that I am, I jumped in head first, signed contracts and booked plane tickets before I truly comprehended my new course of action. There are many things people should do before leaving home to visit a new country, however, I think the most important thing to do is to open his or her mind up to a new experience. After all, perception is reality!

There were so many events about this experience that made it memorable. I could say it was the food, the countryside, the people, the smells, the sounds, etc. However, one thing that makes me think of China with a smile but also a bit of impatient irritation is the sheer amount of staring. Many foreigners talk about staring as a part of their Chinese experience, so I’d like to share a snippet of my story.

I am a young Black American woman teaching English in China. Many Chinese people found these facts about me the most intriguing, especially those who had never met a foreigner. To many Chinese people, especially those from smaller cities and villages, people look a certain way and come from certain places. For example, One time I discussed my nationality with a taxi driver because he postulated that I was not American because my skin wasn’t white and I my nose wasn’t long. “Americans don’t look like you,” he said (as was translated to me). I proceeded to explain that America is a mix of many cultures that have mixed to make something new. I came to realize later that many people thought this way and it would always be a topic of discussion.

Whenever I went into town, to the classroom, to a restaurant, etc. I was stared at relentlessly. They didn’t consider it rude. They would tap their friends on the shoulder, make a gesture with the heads or blatantly point and say, “Kàn! Wàiguórén! (看外国人),” roughly translated as “Look! A foreigner!” Next someone would gain the courage to ask your country of origin. In response I’d say America and we would proceed to have the previously mentioned discussion.

After a person would comprehend the fact that I am an American, they would mention how beautiful I am saying, “Piào liàng (漂亮).” Because people would say it or yell it at me all the time, I eventually asked what it meant. It was explained to me that The first character, 漂 (piào) means ‘elegant’ or ‘polished’ and the second character, 亮 (liàng) means ‘light,’ or ‘bright.’ The literal translation of piào liàng, then, is ‘elegant and bright’ but the Chinese used it to say something is beautiful as well. To say the least, I was flattered and felt a little better about all the staring eyes I was attracting…just a little.

My time in China is filled with memories both good and bad. China is a place that will forever be a part of my life, not only in a global sense, but also on a personal level.

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