The foreign affairs office was taking us out for Christmas.
“Where are we going?” I asked Judy, another teacher.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I hope it’s a Peking duck dinner.” She paused. “Chuck’s going too.”
My stomach sank. “He is? I thought he was boycotting us.”
“I guess he’ll make an exception for Christmas.”
It was 1998, ten years before the Olympics, when bustling hutongs still snaked through the nation’s capital and the only coffee you could get was from McDonald’s. I taught English to graduate engineering students in Changping, a small town outside Beijing, and hated every minute of it.
I wasn’t sure which was worse, teaching apathetic students or being a foreigner with a Chinese face. Neither native nor foreign enough, I couldn’t blend in, nor did people believe I was American.
“But you look Chinese,” they’d say.
“I am,” I’d answer. “I’m Chinese American.”
Puzzlement. “But you look Chinese.”
My students could spot my long purposeful gait a mile away. (I tried to shorten it but didn’t have the patience.) Once in a store, some younger kids pointed at me. “Laowai!” they said, though I hadn’t said anything.
Laowai, old foreigner, referred to anyone, regardless of age, not from China. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan writes that when she stepped off the plane in China, she became Chinese. I became a laowai.
By December, I had been there four months and missed everyone: my boyfriend, my friends, my family. It wasn’t as bad as the beginning when I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and was so terrified of teaching, several hairs on my head turned gray. The terror had dulled to an ache as I imagined the holiday hustle and bustle back home: New York streets crowded with tourists and shoppers, the modest tree my parent put up in their house in New Jersey, the Heat and Snow Misers duking it out on TV.
Unlike the Lunar New Year with celebrations that lasted for weeks, Christmas wasn’t a big holiday in China. Even under the modern Communist regime, there were very few Christians, at least those who’d admit to it, and all Western religions tended to be lumped together. My students used the sign of the cross to mean everything from Protestantism to Catholicism to Judaism.
Although Beijing may have had a more festive feel, in Changping there was nothing. We had the day off, but it was like any other morning. In fact, with no classes and students hiding from the cold in their tiny dorm rooms, it was worse. The campus was like an icy ghost town. The waiban was doing us a favor by taking us out.
We met in the courtyard between our houses. Judy and Ron, a fiftyish couple from Oregon, had been teaching all over China for the past decade. They were friendly with foreigners and natives alike, unlike some laowai who preferred to be one of a kind. Judy looked nervous.
“Will he talk to us?” she wondered.
“Don’t worry,” Ron said. “We’ll have a good time no matter what.”
Chuck, like us, was an American English teacher. Middle-aged and skinny, he had a thick thatch of steel-colored hair and a beak nose. He had been ignoring us since October.
We weren’t sure why. We knew he wasn’t happy about how the school was run, and was always making suggestions to Mr. Sun, the head of foreign affairs. The first time Chuck and I met, at breakfast in the dining hall, he had talked at me for half an hour about how terrible the Chinese educational system was, and that it was up to us to change it.
Us, change the system? All I wanted was to get through my next class.
After that I avoided him. “I have laundry to do,” I said by way of apology if we crossed paths in the dining hall again. Or, “I have to prepare my lessons.”
“You’re a very solitary person,” he told me.
Since then he had been giving all of us the cold shoulder. “Look, another foreigner,” he said once to Judy as she rang her bike bell at him, then kept walking.
One rare warm day, as the three of us sat on Ron and Judy’s porch sunning ourselves, he walked right by us, his hood up like blinders, and didn’t say a word.
The week before Christmas, Chuck’s family had arrived. It was hard to imagine the lone figure marching across campus in his parka as being close to anyone. But they seemed nice. Heftier than her husband, his wife Debbie had short brown hair and rosy cheeks. In their early 20s, his son and two daughters rode around on bikes in the bitter cold. Whenever they saw us, they waved and smiled.
The waiban arrived in their shiny black van. Mr. Lee, a youngish guy with floppy hair and a missing incisor, was driving while Mr. Sun sat shot gun.
“Merry Christmas,” said Mr. Sun, stereotypically squinty-eyed and big-toothed, as we got in.
“Merry Christmas,” we chorused back.
“Where’s Chuck?” Mr. Sun asked.
He muttered to Mr. Lee in Chinese, “That other guy hasn’t shown up yet. Go knock on his door.”
People always seemed to forget that I understood them. “What is this nonsense?” one of my students asked in Mandarin when I tried teaching similes.
“Do you have a question?” I asked him in English.
He froze, then didn’t speak for the rest of the class.
Mr. Lee hadn’t moved. Chuck’s grouchy reputation preceded him.
“I’ll go then,” Mr. Sun said. Then to us, smilingly, in English, “I will get Chuck.” He got out of the car and jogged up Chuck’s walkway.
“Maybe he’s not coming,” Judy murmured.
Mr. Sun returned with Chuck and Debbie in tow. I was surprised to see that Chuck was smiling.
“Cold enough for you?” Chuck asked, climbing in.
We all glanced at each other. “My thermometer said 10 degrees,” Ron said.
“Worse with the wind chill factor,” I said.
Judy rolled her eyes. “Wind chill factor. Made up by meterologists.”
Mr. Sun shut his door. “Let’s go,” he said to Mr. Lee.
Being driven into Beijing was a nice change from the cold and smelly bus. Every Friday Ron, Judy and I rode it to go on various excursions: shopping for knickknacks, visiting museums, trying different foods. The other week we visited a Taoist monastery, where the monks padded around silently in blue and white, their uncut hair wound in complex spirals around their heads. Afterwards we ate hand pulled noodles, slurping noisily against the bitter cold. Ron had invited Chuck to join us multiple times, but he never did.
“Here we are,” Mr. Sun said.
To my delight, we were pulling up to the Grand Hotel Beijing, one of the fancier places in the city. It catered to foreigners and I missed being catered to. I was sick of restaurants with bones on the floor and gristle on the table. Even if they were confused by my Asian features and perfect English, the staff would be too polite to say anything.
Mr. Sun led us to the dining room, clean and spacious with potted plants and white tablecloths. Tiny white lights twinkled from the ceiling while holly and mistletoe hung in every corner. Christmas carols played softly. “You can have anything you want,” Mr. Sun said of the elaborate buffet.
Judy glanced around. “I don’t see any Peking duck,” she said.
Tired of Chinese food, I nearly wept for joy at the sight of meat loaf, roasted chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and bread pudding. It would be a merry Christmas after all.
As we ate, we talked and laughed like normal people, like friends. That day Debbie and her daughters had gone shopping in Silk Alley.
“Did you haggle?” asked Judy, a champion bargainer.
She hadn’t. “Ten dollars seemed like a good deal for a silk scarf.”
“Ten dollars!” Judy cried. That was eighty RMB. “Highway robbery.”
“We also visited Embassy Row,” said Debbie, deftly changing the subject. “We saw a lot of parents with their adoptees.”
Judy nodded. “It’s one of the last stops before they can go home.”
I had seen it too: white men and women pushing strollers with Chinese girls. I always wondered if they’d think I was a grown-up adoptee, and I’d have to explain that no, Chinese people did raise their kids in America.
As we left, I was surprised to see that Chuck and Debbie were holding hands. The strange crabby man seemed to be gone. Maybe he had simply been lonely all this time. Sometimes foreigners went off the deep end in China, Judy said. I certainly had.
We were quiet on the ride back to Changping. My belly was full of good American eats yet I still yearned for home. I wanted to wake up to hear English outside my window, not Chinese. I wanted to speak and understand without effort, to see other colors in a sea of black hair. I wanted to sink back into anonymity and not stick out as the foreign girl with a Chinese face and soldier’s stride.
Back on campus, Mr. Lee let us out in our courtyard. “Good night!” Ron and Judy called as they disappeared inside. “Merry Christmas!”
Chuck and Debbie waved. Their windows were brightly lit; I could see their kids moving around.
“Think the munchkins fared all right?” I heard him ask his wife.
“I think they’re fine,” she told him.
Later, after he left Changping for good, we’d raid his house for extra supplies. His family had gone home right after Christmas, and he had had several weeks alone. We were flabbergasted by the state he left. The living room floor was covered in peanut shells, the toilet tank lid lay broken in half in the hallway, and inexplicably, a plate of sliced raw mutton was left out on the kitchen counter.
“He was worse off than we thought,” Judy would say, shaking her head.
But for now I didn’t know this. For now I was jealous that Chuck got to have his family around him on Christmas morning, and that they’d be together tonight. Maybe he and Debbie would talk about what they ate, and the kids would be jealous, already craving U.S. fare. They’d tell how they went exploring, and how everyone stared, and they’d laugh and shake their heads because there was only a few more days of this, not months on end.
If Chuck could have all that, I wondered as I unlocked my door, why didn’t he want it all the time? Why did he leave? Did he prefer to be alone in a strange country where Jews were the same as Christians simply because they weren’t Chinese? Maybe where he was from wasn’t good enough for him. There he wasn’t special. Here at least he was a laowai.
I went alone into my dark house. I turned on the heaters and changed into my pajamas. I flipped on the TV and watched an incomprehensible Taiwanese soap opera. Later, before turning in, I’d etch another scratch mark on the paper I had taped to the wall, counting down the days till I could finally go home.