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.
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.
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.