It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an American!

One of the few memories I have of first grade is the time I pissed my pants.

School usually let out around 3 pm. It was around 2:45, and I thought I could hold it for another 15 minutes. I crossed my legs and shifted in my seat, trying to focus on anything but the obvious. When the bell rang, I stood up and the floodgates opened.

I was wearing stonewashed jeans with white specks, not the kind of pants that could hide a stain.

My mother was parked outside, and to get to her car I had to walk across a field that separated the school from a road where parents waited for their children. It was the longest 100 yards of my childhood.

I didn’t so much mind the feeling of hot urine running down my leg. I was a boy, and boys get dirty all the time. But the stares, pointing and giggling from classmates walking past me were more than I could handle. I began running and when I reached my mom’s car, I yanked opened the door, jumped inside and slumped in the seat so I couldn’t see out the window.

As a white man living in China, I sometimes feel like I’m always walking around in piss-stained pants. I get stared at every day, and usually it’s not just one look, but a double, triple or even quadruple take.

I’ve watched people staring at me nearly run into light posts. A couple months ago, a man I passed walking up a mountain was so locked in that he tripped over his feet and almost fell down a flight of steps.

The staring doesn’t bother me on the street, but it can be uncomfortable in a public restroom or when you’re trying to enjoy a meal with friends.

Please don’t stare while I’m trying to take pretty pictures.

I asked one of my Chinese colleagues about the staring. It’s been more than three decades since China opened up to the world through economic reforms, and foreigners have been coming here in increasing numbers ever since. Haven’t the locals gotten used to seeing people like me by now?

He said they are not trying to be rude. They’re just still very curious, and that some of the people who stare come from rural areas, where it’s extremely rare to see someone who doesn’t look like them.

In most cases, I’ve found the curiosity to be genuine. Like with any stranger, they want to know where I’m from. Where I work. Why I came to China. And if I’m married.

A few weeks ago, I went to a barber shop near my apartment. I took a seat and noticed a man sitting beside me staring in my direction. I tried to ignore him, but he moved a little closer. “Ni shi naguoren?” he said, asking what country I was from.

“America.”

He asked me another question, but the only words I could understand were “America” and “movie theater.” When I didn’t immediately respond, he put his hands together in the shape of a gun. I realized he was asking me about the shooting at a movie theater in Colorado.

He wanted to know if my family was OK. I said they were fine, and that they lived in a different part of the country. He asked why guns were such a big problem in the US, and I told him I didn’t know.

I tried to change the subject back to something simple. I asked the man if he had kids, and he told me he had a son whose English was already much better than his. We both smiled and looked down at the ground, neither of us sure what to say next.

But for a moment I felt comfortable, like I was just one of the guys waiting in line, and not some stranger in piss-stained pants.

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28 thoughts on “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an American!

  1. Thanks for this post, for I surely can relate. I live in Taiwan, myself, and for seven years I’ve heard ‘weigworen’ nearly every day; moreover, when I lived in Japan years ago, I received my frequent doses of “gaijin”, too. I suppose it comes with the territory, and, to make it easier to accept, I sometimes compare it to having a Japanese, Kuwaiti or Nigerian family walking the streets of my sister’s former town of Mina, South Dakota (USA) where people simply aren’t accustomed to much racial diversity, and how locals would react. However, I then shoot my theory down a bit by telling myself I live in a city of well over a million people–and that back in the States, where I am from, in a city that size, diversity would most likely allow people to feel more comfortable with “outside-country-people”. Heretofore, I took it mostly in stride, but I developed a sense that “Wait, I live here now, and I have for seven years, so stop calling my ‘weigworen’ in my face!” I don’t react that way at all when I travel in such places as Laos or Cambodia where I’ve received much more attention, for I don’t live there and don’t want to necessarily “blend in” and just be a “person” living there. Nowadays, I am even more quick to tune in because my daughter is mixed-race, with mom coming from here, and people point to her and I and call us BOTH foreigners. I respond in Mandarin to say she is Taiwanese and then try my best to say that if she hears someone call me (her) an outsider, she will feel I am different–and I don’t want my daughter to think that. She otherwise wouldn’t have a clue, at age three-plus, about the differences–and she’d just accept us all as ‘people’. I wish more people would.

    • Thanks for the feedback about your experiences. I’m sure if I had a child my perspective on this would be completely different. When I first moved to Beijing, I met a guy from the UK who was married to a Mexican woman. They had a girl, around 4 I think, who was beautiful. He said that everywhere they went locals would stop, take pictures and ask to hold or touch her. This was flattering at first, he said, but after a couple months it became pretty annoying.

      All in all, I’ve had more good experiences than bad and can’t really complain.

      Thanks for reading,

      Jimmy

  2. I had the same feeling when I lived in Beijing – once, when walking along eating jianbing, a little boy ran smack into my legs. He looked up, gasped, and ran away yelling WAIGUOREN!
    I’ve had times where I felt like I was contagious because everyone on the metro seemed to avoid me, but many times where the kindness of strangers, or the sudden striking up of conversations, has been heartwarming.
    Thanks for always writing great posts!
    Bea

  3. Solid post. Whenever the locals stared at me in Shanghai, I would wave and smile. Very rarely would I get a smile or wave back but hopefully I left them with a positive impression. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more.

    • Thanks for the compliment. I appreciate it.

      I agree about being friendly. One negative experience can change a person’s mind about a group of people, whether it be Americans, Chinese or other kinds of people.

      Jimmy

  4. I love how they say “foreigner” in Chinese out loud as if you don’t understand them… I stare back and say CHINESE real loud, LOL. I think I’ve been here too long! As much as I’ve loved it here, the staring drives me nuts… one year up in 15 days!

  5. I once asked a Chinese girl why they stared like that and got told ‘we stare because you people look funny’. I don’t think she meant to be rude. To her, she was just stating a fact.

  6. Thanks for the insight. I enjoy the story transition. I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to, but I think I would prefer the nervous-famous feeling. Pee is only so warm and comforting, especially in public.

  7. I understand your comments. I don’t live in China, but have visited on numerous occasions. Do you find that it varies based on what city you are in? During my last trip to Qingdao – people definitely stared. Especially when they saw me on the bus. Given Qingdao’s history I was genuinely surprised by the staring. I thought with the city’s history they would be used to seeing foreigners. Maybe they just weren’t used to see foreigners on the local city bus. Even while walking around the major parts of Qingdao – not rural areas – people stared.

    On the other hand, while I was in Guangzhou nobody paid attention. They were used to seeing foreigners. I even dropped in on a local gung-fu school and folks didn’t pay me much attention. I guess it varies. In Shanghai nobody paid attention. In Wenzhou, yes lots of stares. In Beijing not so much.

    Rindge Leaphart

    • You’re correct. It does vary depending on which city I’m in. When I was visited Shanghai a couple months ago, I noticed that nobody paid attention. But in Beijing, it’s different, especially on the subway and at some of the touristy places. I’ve gotten used to it after two years, but when I have visitors from the US it’s usually one of the first things they point out.

      Jimmy

    • Rindge… I would say you are spot on. I live and mostly work in Hangzhou, where even though I live 2 blocks from the university where tons of foreign students attend, they point and say foreigner out loud… I’ve had a few occasions where people have run into the curb or each other staring, thankfully no one has been injured too badly.
      I work a lot in Guangzhou, as well, and no one bothers to stare there, or Hong Kong, as they are use to it. When in GZ I stay in a neighborhood with tons of middle easterners, so I fit right in 🙂
      Wenzhou and Taizhou… I could go days there without seeing another non-Asian, so lots of staring there, although both are delightful cities with wonderful people! Ending my year here in China in 15 days… on to my next adventure 🙂

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