Being the Foreigner (still)

Random pic from Yushu…

Now that my computer is repaired, I can finally continue to post. However, a lack of camera will keep me from posting many pics for the moment.

The harvest is over. Just two weeks ago, the potholed roads and singledonkey-wide tracks winding sinuously through the valleys surrounding town were superhighways of agricultural activity. Goldeneared barley, piled into thick, softbristly mats, covered the surfaces of these tracks, which, vacant so much of the year, now bustled with activity. Farm carts, tractors, motorcycles, livestock of all sorts and all manner of makeshift vehicles rumbled over the supine crops, ensuring a fast and thorough threshing. Families crowded into the fields, sometimes picking, sometimes at rest, bodies flattened against the ochre earth, hats shading faces from the sun, beers (occasionally) in hand. Modestly sized donkeys, backs burdened with impossible-seeming loads of freshly harvested crops, trundled sturdily down the paths in seeming defiance of all other traffic, scattering sheep, goats, yaks, motorcycles and tractors with equally fearless disregard.

The countryside was alive with people and activity to a degree I had never seen; entire villages were abandoned as the center of activity moved, temporarily, into the vast swathes of terraced barley fields overlooking the valley. This vast seasonal migration didn’t have a great affect on my life; a foreign teacher, even in rural areas, is cushioned and insulated from the vagaries of agricultural life by his books and his differences from the local population. But the aliveness of the countryside certainly changed the experience of going on a run. To running routes normally dominated by the agricultural landscape, the harvest added something of the cultural, a human component which quickly became central to the experience. During other times of year, my runs are placidly idyllic celebrations of the spectacular landscape populated only very occasionally by a lone herder or child; my interactions, such as they are, are generally limited to a shouted greeting, a “cho demo” yelled as I continue, at a certain velocity, along my path. But during the harvest, these interactions became actual conversations; which, along with the people I would meet, gradually took on greater degrees and gradations of  shape and color. As I made my way through fields, entire villagefuls of people abruptly halted work to follow me with their everinquiring eyes; questions, invitations, expressions of wonderment or confusion – at my activity, at my dress, at my existence – fluttered constantly, a passenger-pigeon army’s worth of correspondence. On one memorable afternoon, I was outrun by word of mouth as I made my way down a sharply switchbacking mountain road. People on the upper slopes, on becoming aware of my presence, would yell their news down the steeply terraced fields, news which rapidly outpaced my zigzag trajectory. Work abruptly stopped across the mountain’s lower slopes as hundreds of eyes turned upwards to follow my path down the mountainside, first to the north, then southwards through a hairpin turn, north, south, the spectacle of the human yoyo. By the time I arrived at the bottom of the mountain, several families had prepared tea and bread for me and invited me to join them on their picnic blankets.

Why am I apparently so special and fascinating that I deserve such constant attention – and such unwarranted displays of generosity? I have been in this area for over two years, and yet I am still the foreigner who has just arrived, the curiosity within the museum display case. I am still besieged with stares and yells of “hello!” whenever I walk into the courtyard of my apartment complex, whenever I go to school, whenever I walk through the monastery or into town or run into the mountains. I am still the center of attention when I walk down the street, stopping work and affecting the town’s productivity to a degree that the prefectural development office must find alarming. Despite knowing more people in town with each passing month, I remain – and will always remain – an outsider, a spectacle for visual scrutinization and consumption rather than a real human being.

And it’s remarkable the degree to which I’ve gotten used to this. On most days, the yells, stares and constant focus of attention become part of the background landscape of town, peripheral aspects of the everyday experience. On bad days, however, every scream of fake English, every obnoxiously loud car horn, every pair of focused eyes, every car which pretends to veer into you, only to swerve away at the last moment, rolling down their window to reveal a sunburnished face staring, with unabashed Cheshirelike grin, directly into your eyes, your existence acknowledged and catalogued and fixed as a precisely mapped location – every one of these moments that reminds you of your differences, your otherness – all of this grating attention pushes you into deep frustration and annoyance. This experience, which is certainly common to all foreigners in China, is almost certainly heightened by the remoteness and randomness of the place I’ve chosen to live – and the fact that I am conscious of living and working in, rather than simply visiting, this place – even if temporarily. And while annoyance is often quite a shallow emotion, a weakly petty sense of anger, constantly being reminded of your foreignness by everyone around you – both friends and strangers – can quickly push the feeling into the realms of profundity.

So why did I come here? Why did I choose to live in a place where I’ll always be separate and different, always apart from others? Did I move to a place of such dramatic differences because there are things – my culture, my background, my country, myself – that I haven’t really figured out yet? Or am I self-centered enough that I actually somehow crave and relish in the attention, in the recognition of my difference and specialness?

I certainly hope not, and believe not as well, for the omnipresent sense of being an outcast, an other, would be a sickening and strange thing to crave. Often, living here, I feel the middle school-esque desire of a slightly differentiated conformity – a hope that your differences are only enough to make you a little special, but that, in the vast majority of things, you are similar to others, unthreatening, normal, even – at times – invisible. But such hopes of conformity or assimilation will never be realized where I’ve chosen to live. I must simply be content to remain the outsider, the spectator of the cultures which, in  turn, constantly spectate and examine everything about me; the other who, no matter how close he gets to understandings or revelations or insights or feelings of being similar or part of or one with everyone else – who, despite all this, will always be the other, always apart.

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One Response to Being the Foreigner (still)

  1. Lydia says:

    Wonderful post, Jonas. I totally hear you, even though my experience was not as picturesque. What’s also strange is coming back to the States and having people NOT stare at you all the time or yell random things. Hope you have a great semester!

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