In my short time here in China, I have been adjusting to being a minority for the first time in my life. I don’t speak, or read, the language so I am functionally illiterate, too. I don’t look like everyone else, not by a long shot. Days go by that I do not see another Westerner. The Chinese people who I do encounter on a regular basis, my Mandarin teacher and my Chiropractor, speak English; the street signs are in Chinese and English and hand signals and pantomime make communicating with our Ayi possible, if not exactly foolproof.
Much of the time I don’t invite a second look; many of the Shanghainese are familiar with foreigners. Children, as children are wont to do, stare in fascination, parents encouraging their toddler with the gaping mouth to say “Ni Hao.” Some muster a small wave of the hand. There are the occasional moments when my appearance will trigger a camera-wielding individual to surreptitiously snap a picture of this Laowai to which I turn and give them a thumbs up and smile. I even had one person be so bold as to ask me to pose with him while his friend snapped a picture with his phone (probably sending it back to family in the provinces to prove that Laowai do exist.) But never have I seen a reaction like the one that greeted me on my way to the downtown #2 Metro station.
Yesterday, sunny and 60°, was a perfect day for sticking in the headphones, cranking up Beggars Banquet and walking the 1.3 km to the metro stop. Walking to the Luijiazui Metro stop takes me past the construction of the world’s second tallest building and its attendant workers’ dormitories. Construction workers, mostly migrants from China’s vast, rural interior region, were streaming out of the gates on their way to lunch, some eating from bowls of noodles as they strolled. I got jammed behind two, bamboo-thin young men on a narrow path, trapped by endless rows of parked bicycles and scooters on either side. I slowed to a crawl just off their heels waiting for the smallest of openings so I could shoot past and be on my way. Ahead, about 20 feet, another orange-helmeted worker turned; he spotted me sticking out above the helmeted heads of his co-workers and shouted something. Inches in front of me, to my right, the young man slurping noodles as he ambled along the goat trail, turned: A shriek pierced the guitars and drums of Sympathy for the Devil, noodles spilled and a path between the two men opened as they stumbled into the bicycle walls. I exchanged laughs with their friend who had shouted the warning and strode on.
Not since the last time I told my parents I was moving back into their house had I caused that kind of reaction.
Ni Hao, friends.