Stories #1 – Crossing Gazes

Hello everyone.
Today I start a mini-series of 4 short posts, translated from French to English. These are posts form my older blog and my French readers already know about them.
But I chose to translate them today, because they are among the rare texts that I don’t feel ashamed of, even years after I wrote them. They speak to my heart and make me melancholic at the same time.

This series is about a short part of my 3rd trip to China, in summer 2011. I went to visit some friends, Sandra and Sunny (not their real names), near to the bustling giant industrial city of Shenzhen. At the time I could speak Mandarin, and spent some days in unofficial immersion in a plastic molds factory.

Some explanations: Except in some specific cases, all dialogues reported here happened in Mandarin. Also, I am a girl but I look (looked?) like a boy, and most people naturally assumed I was one. I usually do nothing to clear the misunderstanding. So don’t be confused by the pronouns: people in the text can talk about me with “he” or “she” depending on the situation.

Let us start softly with my arrival in Shenzhen, and progress in the future posts to the more serious talk. This is about people. This is about their stories, as they told it to me. But this is also about a black girl going to a place where foreigners don’t go. Don’t look for objectivity: this story is as biased as it comes.

September 1st, 2011

My 2 weeks long trip in China started with a 4 hour plane delay. The Tokyo-Beijing plane landed in the middle of the night on August 28th. It was so dark I couldn’t possibly find my way to the hotel, so I stopped a taxi. The driver was an old man. I showed him the printed address:

Me – Do you know this place?
Him – I can’t read these small wiggly lines (latin alphabet), little guy! How about you read it to me!

I read it, but it was a long time before we finally found the right place: there were no numbers on the houses. The hotel had received my train ticket for Shenzhen, courtesy of my friend Sandra. After resting for a full day, I left for the Beijing West train station. Those who know me will have guessed it: I got lost almost immediately. At some point, a strange looking bare-chested guy approached me. As a foreigner with the experience of visiting Vietnam’s biggest cities alone, I couldn’t help seeing everything with two wheels or two feet and asking too many questions as a potential enemy. Since I was stuck at a red light, I decided to play “stupid tourist”, hoping to be quickly left alone.

Barechest – Hey! Hey! Where are you going? Heyyyy!
Me – *Smiles stupidly, shrugs*
Barechest – Where are you from?
Me – *shakes head*
Barechest – *turns towards a guy sitting on the ground nearby with a beer* Do you see that? This boy travels abroad, he can’t speak Mandarin AND he’s mute!
Beer guy – Hey you! Do you speak English?
Me – *Signs “a little” with hand*
Barechest – He’s mute I tell you!
Beer guy – *Hails a passing student-looking kid with a backpack* Hey little one, you study English at school, don’t you? Talk to this foreigner!
Kid – Errr! Hellow! Where you go?

At that point I decided to talk, because I didn’t want to wait for every passing person to be called by Barechested Guy, and why so much insistence towards a foreigner stupid and mute? In Mandarin, I said:

Me – West Station.
Kid – Train? You… Train?
Me – Yes.
Kid – It’s in the opposite direction, you’re going the wrong way…
Me – Er, really?
Kid – Yup, it’s *that* way.
Me – Oh… Thanks…
Kid – Bye bye!

And that’s how I noticed that my trip to Vietnam had made me paranoid, to the point of refusing to talk to people who were just genuinely trying to help me. Me and my big luggage that I was obstinately dragging in the wrong direction. I felt truly ashamed that I didn’t make the effort to speak in Mandarin to the guy who first talked to me. The young student really did his best to help me, even if he wasn’t confident in his spoken English. This is not an episode I am proud of. All of this to say, don’t be like me, don’t judge Beijing inhabitants on bad experiences that you’ve had elsewhere.

After that I rode the train for 38 hours nonstop, with two 8 years old kids as bed-neighbours. Everyone was so exasperated by the bratty behaviour of the two kids that we just gave up hope of getting to know each other and spent most of our time wide awake in bed. When the little family finally got off, after 32 hours, people exchanged a few polite banalities and we all fell into a deep, well deserved slumber.

On my arrival at Shenzhen, I met Sandra (“let’s eat something! You don’t eat enough, that’s why you’re so skinny!”) and we took the bus to my hotel, next to the town she lives in. It’s a “factory-town”: all the people who live here work in the little factories nearby, and most of them had never seen a foreigner.
There was a shy young man, hiding behind the bus curtains, who was too bashful to ask me directly if “I was born with my hair naturally like that (curly), or if I had it done by a hairdresser?”. It was a cute question that got me smiling all the way (but if your hairdresser does your hair like mine, please change to a different hairdresser).
There was an old man with very tan skin and small shiny teeth, who smiled to me almost without blinking for 10 min before I dared talk to him. He had a very soft voice, a huge smile, and seemed delighted to simply look at me. I told him I came from France, but I felt as if I could as well have said that I came straight from Mars.

It’s strange, nobody seemed to notice me when I was in the Chinese countryside or in the big cities, just like no one noticed cripples and homeless people. It was just normal that I was there and that I spoke Mandarin. But here, in this place stuck between a giant city and a deserted countryside, I wouldn’t look more bizarre if I suddenly grew horns and started hopping on my head.

At the hotel, the reception clerk (a young woman) asked me the usual questions then inquired about my age.
Clerk – What? 21 years old?! You are but a little child! A baby! 21 years old, oh gosh!
Sandra – Do you hear that Lana, she says you’re a little child! Hahaha, a baby! Ho ho ho!

Yes, I heard, Sandra. This is something that never changes, wherever I go…

Me – Do you know Sandra, there were 2 little kids in my train and…
Sandra – How nice. Did you talk to them?
Me – Well, no, they really were kids, 7 or 8 years old I guess, and…
Sandra – Good, you could have practiced your Mandarin!
Me – …

This post was meant as an introduction to the main characters. In the next, shorter episode, “Nail Polish and Liver Soup”, I get a feeling of the town and the factory. In the 3rd and 4th episodes, we get to the core of things: Chinese lives in the big city as told by Chinese people.

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