Since coming to China, adaptation has been key to any successes enjoyed. Being viewed as an expendable commodity, even with plenty of experience and qualifications, has been the hardest truth to swallow. A little sweeter on the ego though has been the celebrity status granted my presence for nothing more than having blue eyes and white skin.
You can never grow tired of such attention, whether it be excitable teenagers or giggling mothers. It cannot fail to boost self-confidence levels. With any positive though, there’s always a negative, and like any ‘z’ list celebrity I’m sure would tell you, with ‘fame’ comes plenty of mocking and abuse.
Up until now, I’ve taken the mocking and constant gawping in my stride and with only weeks left in the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ I thought I would leave with my head held high and dignity intact. Sadly I was about to meet my match, in the form of a spotty, pubescent, oversized, teenaged boy.
Teenage boys the world over have two main aims in their responsibility-free lives; to impress girls and be popular amongst their friends. One of the easiest way to impress both girls and friends in Benxi is to mock the laowai (foreigner). Normally a quick ‘hello’ once I have already walked past is enough to send friends in to fits of delirium and leave girls fluttering eye lashes seductively.
This larger than life adolescent boy though decided to push the boundaries to a whole new level. As I walked down the street, alongside my wife, the mischievous youth, with friends watching, walked in front of us and started to dance. I ignored his Michael Flateley impression first time around, but by the third time as he stared and pointed at us like monkeys in a zoo, obviously under the misguided understanding that his actions were only visible to his watching friends and not to the foreigners within spitting distance, for once I decided to ‘mock’ back.
As he walked back to his friends, who were already hailing him a hero, I approached him and embraced him like a long lost brother. If this didn’t shock him enough, I then continued in my loudest voice to ask a barrage of questions, giving no time for him to interpret and answer back. "Nice to meet you. How are you? Where are you going? What are you doing? Who are you friends? Why are you so big? Is that a real nose? Do you like wearing trousers that are far too tight for your physique? Are you nervous? Why are you trying to walk away? Why aren’t you answering my questions? Are you going to introduce me to your friends? When am I and your old man going to shoot some pool like we did back in ’94?" The questions rolled off my tongue faster than an Andy Roddick serve.
Of course, I knew he couldn’t answer many of these questions, even if I gave him the chance. With shoppers stopping and staring, my aim was to make him feel as uncomfortable being mocked as he had tried to make my wife and I feel. The success of my tactics, even I wasn’t expecting. As the confidence evaporated from his face, his friends’ laughter became aimed at him, rather than with him. His eyes became small, and his fear was evident. Just as I decided I had proved my point, he fell to the floor shaking and started to cry. The watching friends and crowd found this hilarious. I admit, as I walked away I felt a tad guilty about the success of my endeavours, but to be so openly mocked and be treated like a circus freak does grate on your nerves from time to time.
Although teaching was rough going when I first arrived in Benxi, now it’s been as enjoyable as ever. Even so, there are some mothers who have a very disillusioned idea of what a teacher can do for their offspring. I recently bumped in to an ex-student who left my class 8 months ago. She was one of my very first ‘beginner’ students and it was her mother that led the charge of the parents mid-class when I pronounced the ‘oo’ and ‘u’ in ‘book’ and ‘bug’ too similarly.
We were in the toothpaste aisle of the local supermarket. As I picked up the cheapest tube on the shelf that had more chance of rotting your teeth than cleaning them, I heard the words, "my daughter only remembers the words pen and pencil from your classes," gloated from behind by my ex-student’s mother. I wanted to remind the mother that not only was her daughter borderline ‘special’ but for anyone who doesn’t study a language for a matter of weeks, let alone 8 months, it’s very unlikely the knowledge will stick like superglue. But after my spotty teenager confrontation, I decided against anymore retaliations. I also knew, that in her eyes, I would always be the reason why her daughter was a failure at the English language.
Benxi is a small city by Chinese standards, but even after a years worth of living and exploring, it is still a city full of surprises. One such surprise was recently discovering a whole new road of ‘working men’s’ bars and clubs. Upon entering though I quickly realised that alongside having the cheapest beer in town, the men also come here for a completely different past time.
Inside, barely visible through the thick layers of stagnant smoke, women lined the walls, a sight I found slightly confusing considering these were places specifically for the working class male. It didn’t take long to realise what these women were for though. Upon entering, many made a beeline in my direction, pouting their lips and asking for a dance. They were quickly followed by their ageing pimps, promoting the fact that three dances with their hosts would cost only £1.
Three dances for one whole English pound doesn’t sound a bad deal, but considering many of these women looked like they hadn’t seen the light of day for years, I realised that (along side being happily married) such a price tag was nothing short of extortion.
With beer in hand, I found a nice dark corner in which I could watch proceedings in peace. As the men poured on to the dance floor, their newly acquired rentable woman in tow, I felt uncomfortable watching these lonely men pay their meagre earnings for the chance of artificial companionship. As these thoughts were running through my head the lights were turned off, cloaking the dance floor under a blanket of darkness. The music continued. Thirty seconds later, the lights came back on, and as the women re-arranged their outfits, I realised that for £1 these men got a bit more than three dances. For a brief spell during each dance, they also had the chance for a quick grope and squeeze. I quickly finished my beer, shuffled out of the darkness, though the thick layers of smoke and out in to the chill of the night air.
One of the best parts of working in a new culture is being invited to a friend’s houses for real Chinese food. My wife and I were invited to a friends house recently. While her mother and father cooked dinner, I was forced to choose a movie for us all to watch. Not being up to date on any of the new releases, I plumped for ‘Get Him to the Greek’ thinking I couldn’t go wrong with a slapstick comedy.
Before we could start watching it, dinner arrived and with mother and father joining us for the movie viewing afterwards, it soon became apparent what a bad choice I’d made. When it comes to the issues of boys and girls and what happens between them, China is as conservative as you can get. Mentioning the word ‘girlfriend’ can bring a room full of grown men in to an embarrassing state of the giggles. Watching this entire movie full of sexual innuendoes from start to finish had others uncomfortably squirming in their seats. I don’t think I’ll be allowed to pick the next movie again or even receive another invite to this house!
For photos, please visit http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/ShadyAdy. The majority are too large to add here.