Before we went to China, several people, including my Chinese teacher, told us that people would stare at us. I thought it would be 6-foot, blue-eyed Jim (the Good X) who would draw all the attention, but it wasn’t. No one told me I would be the one who would stop traffic.
We were on our way to the Friendship Store near the Baiyun Hotel. Nearing the spot where we’d transfer to a tram, we made our way to the back doors of Bus 22 and waited for it to stop. When the doors opened, people began streaming in before anyone could get off the bus. It was early in our year, and, coming from Colorado, we weren’t yet accustomed to public transportation and especially not to crowds of people pushing and shoving.
That day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and saw my eyes. She stopped on the steps of the bus, pointed, and cried out, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She froze where she stood, looking frightened, blocking the door, causing a traffic jam of bodies.
Jim had made it out, but I was trapped inside. To prevent an incident, the bus driver closed the doors and took off. I got off at the next stop and walked back.
Over time, I think “my” city got used to seeing us around. That never happened again in Guangzhou.
I knew I was the opposite in appearance of every Chinese person. Curly, reddish hair, freckles, green eyes? It’s a look that has been regarded with suspicion all over the world, not just in the People’s Republic of China.
As the months went by, and the only foreign faces I saw were those of my brown-eyed, dark-haired Irish colleague Ruth and my husband Jim, I more or less forgot my own face. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uygur man sitting on the steps of the Moslem restaurant. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed.
I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of many of the people I encountered there in the Middle Kingdom. Most people who approached us on the street either wanted to practice English or change renminbi to Waiwei Qian. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, and called names. One night someone threw rocks at us as we waited for a tram. Events like this said, “Yankee, go home.” I guess these events could be labeled “racist,” but I didn’t see them that way. Nonetheless, it was unpleasant and somewhat scary.
Having worked as a paralegal in a law firm for three years before I escaped the clerical jungle for the PRC (People’s Republic of China), I understood something of law in general. We carried with us paperwork that said we were Chinese and had jobs that were beneficial to China’s modernization. “Ma Sa and Ji Mu” were our legal identities. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. The potential may have existed for an “international incident,” but friendliness, openness, and the willingness to speak even bad Chinese was usually enough to disarm anyone. Walking away worked, too.
We spent our last day in China in Shanghai from where we would fly to San Francisco. Shanghai was comparatively cosmopolitan, and I didn’t expect to create a disturbance that attracted the police. My heart was full of the journey ahead of me, the journey “home.” I wanted to take in every remaining moment of China. After a full day of sightseeing, I just wanted to walk around, savoring Shanghai’s vibrant street life.
We were walking in the neighborhood near our downtown hotel. On a blistering August evening, no sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, sweltering apartment. Everyone had pulled out folding chairs and tables, set up charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, and sat fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking. Sidewalk life poured into the street, leaving a lane for pedestrians and bicycles. As we passed, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghai inflected Mandarin, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stopped what they were doing and came to look at me. I stood calmly while they looked and asked me questions. “Where did you come from?” “What are you doing in China?” Meanwhile traffic couldn’t move through the intersection.
The cops came and broke up the “riot,” scolded me, and told us to move along. We went back to our hotel, surprised that in Shanghai, which even then had far more foreigners than did Guangzhou, no one seemed to have seen green eyes before.
The featured photo is from 2008, when I was the lead singer for The Cure. 😀
Also, this is a chapter from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, my book about teaching in China in 1982/83