On a similar river cruise in Interlaken (Switzerland), the air was cleaner and I only recall being all at once light hearted and mellow. Tonight, the air is heavy. The Pearl River Delta greets me with neon lights and high-rises. Guangzhou’s smoggy skyline is littered with nascent skyscrapers, a reminder that this is one of China’s most prosperous regions yearning for the putative glamour of a global city. The hustle and bustle seeps through a restless evening of mangled introductions.
“Do you speak Chinese?”
“What is America like?”
“You don’t look American… Are you Chinese?”
I have a propensity to present the self as an international student who has experienced life in Singapore, Germany and the United States. I’m inclined to think that the places and spaces I’ve been to have saliently transformed and morphed me into the person I am today; none of these narratives should be discounted. In the here and now, I feel ever more protective of my identity. Perhaps because of this insistence, there existed a ‘We Vs. Them’ conundrum in my subconscious. When my peers made American references, or when they played games I deemed ‘American’ and unfamiliar, I felt inevitably marginalized. One could argue that this misfortune was brought upon the self, and I don’t deny it. This is not the first nor last time I maintain the claim that socializing is hard work.
We received an immensely warm welcome upon our arrival and our partner’s (Win Win Education) hospitality was beyond impressive. At Zhixin High School, we interacted with a couple of students. I held a conversation with one girl who expanded upon her exhausting attempts at the SATs and subject tests.
And then, there came the feeling of being in the wrong place in the wrong time, or being neither here nor there. Zhuhai is a 3-hour drive from Guangzhou. This coastal city seems like an oxymoron that amalgamates both of China’s industrial past and globalizing present. Here, there are road signs that scream at drivers to ‘be civilized’, ‘careful’ and ‘courteous’. Despite those visual cues, those raging cars seldom stop at zebra-crossings. The key, I’ve learnt, is to strut confidently across the road.
On a balmy Wednesday morning, students and staff from Zhuhai No.9 Middle School received us with fancy bouquets and a red carpet treatment. The school brimmed with delight but there also existed a hint of nervous spirits. If I strained my ears, I could hear excitable whispers in Mandarin: oh my goodness, look at how fair their complexions are! Oh wow that person looks so pretty… and that one is very handsome! I’m going to ask for their WeChat IDs!!!
It is a lot easier and more efficient to communicate with the locals in Mandarin. While everyone appears to be more fascinated with the ‘外国人’, most heaved a great sigh of relief at the knowledge that I could speak and read Chinese. For a great part of the week, I was the salesperson that bridged patrons and the display goods; I was certainly not the product of the month.
During breaks, swarms of students come by our office, overly zealous to hang out with their favourite‘外国人’. There is a window that faces a row of slightly tumbledown apartment flats. An elderly lady hangs the last of her laundry. She then stares into the distance. I think about how annoyed she would be since her clothes will not dry in time given this bad weather, I think about how lonely she could be feeling on this rainy afternoon. Some boys come over for the first time and ask if I could help them with some translation. They wanted to ask the ‘漂亮姐姐’ for a lunch date.
I force a smile and try to make myself useful.