I first noticed this phenomenon in Ezhou while I was rambling around there last year (see Ezhou entries, posted July of last year), but I put it down to the locals being exceedingly friendly. Now it happens all the time, and I don't know what to make of it.
For the first few years I was here, younger people always approached me and we did talk, usually in English and not for very long. The conversations all flowed in the same direction, what I call The Standard Questions: Where I'm from, do I have children, where's my husband, why did I come to China and, invariably: could we take pictures together? Sometimes I even got: “I want to practice my English with you” or some variety thereof.
Older people tended to shy away. Once, a woman hurrying onto the subway snagged the first empty seat she saw: next to me. Once she realized she was sitting next to a foreigner, she got up and moved away. That hurt my feelings every time. Elders would rather stand on the bus than sit next to me. However, they had no problems talking about me. As my language skills – specifically listening skills grew, I could make out some of the things they were saying: “She's so tall!” “How big she is!” The unforgettable: “Is it a man or a woman?” Once, I overheard: “Very pretty eyes!” That comment made me happy, especially because it came during that time when I was feeling terrible. And, like the youths, elders had no problems snapping pictures of me, whether they asked permission or not.
But now, things are different, and I don't know what's different about me that makes the situation different.
Now, elders approach me boldly and start conversations.
I don't think I have any sort of markings on me that might indicate I can communicate in Chinese. I am more confident when out and about, and sometimes people can overhear me speaking Chinese. Or they watch me typing text messages in Chinese. Nobody is shy about peeking over my shoulder, even going so far as to lean insistently into my field of vision, blocking my view of my phone.
It's not just the people around my neighborhood who engage me in conversation, either. If it were so, that might explain this new development, because these people have seen me around for 5 years. They talk about me – I'm not being immodest when I say that. A few weeks back, Sam relayed that the *OTW people were asking about me because they'd not seen me in quite a while.
My broken leg is the reason for that. Walking those irregular dirt paths is difficult with a bum leg.
I have a measure of fame in my neighborhood, too. There was an incident recently where an off-duty policeman living in the neighborhood was questioning me (about what, I have no idea). Among the gathering crowd, two women from the farmer's market happened by and recognized me, and told him to leave me alone. “She's our foreigner. She's OK” they said.
In short: being the lone foreigner in this area, I'm bound to be at least known, if not talked about. Again, I say this with no guile whatsoever. So what is it about me that, all of a sudden, elders across this city and elsewhere are no longer shy about speaking with me in Chinese, as though they know I would understand them?
Sam puts it down to a variety of factors, one of which is my growing confidence. Another, he suspects, is my better health. Those 2 years when I was feeling so poorly, nobody would want to approach me. I wouldn't have wanted to approach me, either! A third cause is no doubt my graying hair. For the first few years I was here, I was blonde, and then über-blonde (see “My word but she's blond!” entry, posted November 2010). after the disastrous blond look I rolled into stringy red hair – even my hair looked sick at that time. Now that I've gone natural - curly dark brown with gray streaks, maybe the elders don't feel I'm so formidable a person that they cannot satisfy their curiosity of a foreigner who might be in the same age range, even though I tower over them.
Just yesterday I went to the bike repair shop. My back tire had sprung a slow leak and, as I'd already patched that inner tube 4 times, it was time for a new one. Mr. Repair Man and I were not strangers; his shop being on the way to campus, we've waved at each other countless times. I'd been to see him before when I needed a new tire. Then, customers crowded around him and he was quite busy, patching and repairing bikes, so we had no time for conversation. This time, it was only me and him, early morning. He didn't have repair jobs stacked up and there were no hordes of people milling about, waiting for their conveyances.
I didn't know how to explain my need for a new inner tube. I just gestured to my back tire. He deflated it and took one look at the inner tube with its 4 patches, concluded I needed a new one, and set to work. While working, we talked. Mind you, he already knew I couldn't explain what was wrong with my bike but that didn't stop him from firing The Standard Questions at me. We had a nice conversation. I learned he is a father of 3 from Xinjiang, a northern province, and came here so his children can have a better education. And, we're the same age.
It was quite nice to know a bit about this man to whom in entrust my beautiful steed but, as I pedaled away I still wondered: what is it about me that is different, that encourages people to speak with me as though they know I would understand them???
*NOTE: OTW – Over The Wall community, referring to the village on the other side of the wall from our housing area.