Friday, October 20, 2006

Hei Meiguoren

The conversation often begins innocently enough.
“Where are you from?” “America.” “America?” “Yes.” And now it gets interesting. For with brows raised and eyes wide, they ask “Really?” in English if they speak it and the conversation began in Chinese. “Really?” they ask, as if perhaps I will change my mind, or reveal that I was only joking. “Yes, really.” and then, “Oh, I thought you were from Africa.” always in English. Always in an interrogative tone, as if giving me the opportunity to save face and change my answer, perhaps to give me the chance to say “Well, I was born in…” or “My parents are from…” I reply, “Oh, well, I’m from America.” Sometimes it ends here, other times it continues, as it did a few weeks ago when a German guy asked “But, where are your roots.” This question after he had already asked the birthplace of my forefathers back 5 generations. So I asked, “What do you mean ‘my roots’?” He finally stumbled on to the fact that he was trying to get me to say Africa. Although his unabashed questioning in search of my roots I can perhaps chalk up to the ignorance of an individual, it seems as if in the land of the yellow man, no one knows that the black man can be from almost anywhere. This, for me, is how the longing began.

I often wonder if others have this yearning, this hope inducing longing for an end to the knowledge of distinction. I find myself searching, seeking, scanning crowds, queues, restaurants, buses, trains, groups for the shape of an eye, the curve of a lip, the definition of a nose with the familiarity that brings about wellsprings of joy. I watch for the texture of hair, the hue of skin and listen for the resonance and intonation of voice, to remind me of my connection to a land beyond the one in which I currently dwell. The history therein, although sordid and unfortunate in its telling, lends itself to knowledge of the connection to my unspoken self.

The constant staring, the whispers, and especially the occasionally successful attempts at touching have begun to wear down my resilience and indifference. Mine is not the attention of a ravishing beauty, if only the looks were so kind. Nor is it the surprise of seeing fiction morph into tangible and verifiable reality, the innocence therein is lacking. No, all too often, there is disgust, shock and repulsion that emanates from mere pupils and irises. Other foreigners have remarked that to be with me is a reprieve, because they go virtually unnoticed. Suddenly, they pale in comparison. This perception of me as a novelty, like a child’s play thing, to be amused with and soon discarded, dirty and broken, can not even appeal to my ego to lesson the blow.

In this no-man’s land of distinction, where do I stand? “Meiguoren” means “blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin” as I am oft informed, as well as wealthy, educated and enviable. It carries with the loftiness, pride and high standards of all things Western. “Meiguoren” brings with it a desire for closeness in a land where white skin is lauded, blue eyes are rare, and wealth and education are universally respected. “Guo” is country and “ren” human being, and the character for “mei”, well it means “pretty, beautify, satisfactory, good”. Oh, America the beautiful. “Fei zhou” – Africa. The very word is an insult which most Chinese will avoid speaking unless they aim to offend. “Zhou”, continent, at least they got that right, I don’t have to explain that Africa is not a country. And “Fei”, well that character means “no, negative, wrong, wrongdoing, censure, blame, non-”. Perhaps then, Africa is the non-continent. To be African means to be poor, uneducated, and unworthy of consideration. Low expectations, blatant disregard, disrespect, and the desire to create distance and enforce superiority all become evident with saddening frequency. Here I am called black (hei), and “hei” means African, and African does not mean American. In China, there is no hyphenation.

And yet, there are moments of side splitting hilarity. The day in the market, for example, when the a vendor with a sly smile decided to call me “chocolate”, a three syllable word of which he was sure to draw out the last. And I was quite surprised by the honesty of a man selling postcards on the street, who gently informed me that he understood why I couldn’t buy his postcards, because “it is hard for black to get job and make money”, a statement which is not a pleasant fiction here, but an often cold fact. He subsequently left me alone, and continued to harass the others members of my group. I will have to remember that line the next time I am bargaining.

Despite my efforts to take it all in stride, to be objective, indifferent and even amused, there are times when it is difficult to laugh, or even smile, in response. These are the times when I stand still, unable to choose, and perhaps intentionally deciding not to. And so, those around me make the choice, they decide if their stares, their questions, their treatment of me will be with the respect and desire provided to my kind, or the disrespect and repulsion also provided to my kind. As it goes, a book is often judged by its cover. It is interest in the cover that will prompt most to read the blurb on the back. My blurb says that I am undoubtedly American, but many will never read it for my title is “Fei Zhou” and my cover is decidedly black.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Food Poisoning, Wu Laoshi, and e-mail

Three things came together in the past three days that caused me to start this blog. Food poisoning, an e-mail from a friend, and Wu laoshi (laoshi = teacher). And so, here I am sitting in a friend's room, which he nicknamed the "African Embassy" using the computer to compose a blog. My, how things change.
So, you may be wondering how these three things conspired to bring about this wonderful glimpse into my life in Shanghai. As it turns out, I'm willing to let you know. First, food poisoning. While sparing you all of the gory details, more than 6 hours in the middle of the night alone in a bathroom give one much time to contemplate numerous things - from death (just end the torment) to e-coli (which I thought I had for about 3 hours) to blogs (wouldn't everyone love to hear about this). Hehe.
And the second, a few people suggested before I left the States that I start a blog. But, I thought, "Who would want to read my stupid blog." Well, as it turns out, I read other people's blogs. And then, today, after getting some pictures I e-mailed to her, a friend of mine said that if I started a blog to let her know. So, I thought, "Hey, she'll read it."
And third, a conversation with Wu laoshi, my wonderful Chinese teacher. Today, after 6 weeks of trial, she told me that I am doing well in her class. A few weeks ago she told me that Americans don't study hard, she thinks we are lazy, and that it will be difficult for me to keep up with the class (which is a beginner's class). With that in mind, today's post-class chat was a big self-esteem booster for me. And I thought, "I want to share this with the world, I feel smart again!" Given the endless jokes I have about my "big brain" and how it's worth at least $150,000 USD (if you don't believe me, I'd be more than happy to have you pay off my student loans), feeling smart again is a big deal.
So, here I am, a Black (Caribbean, British, Portuguese, African) American woman in Shanghai. Sometimes I feel like that explains everything...