Chinese, huzhou, less food-related, musings, out and about

Days of Our Laowai

09.07.09 | 4 Comments

I’m not one to talk about my personal life too freely. I can usually talk about stuff with my parents (though of course, they still get a somewhat censored version of my life); I have one friend who gets the whole story, whether he likes it or not. That’s it. Thus, you can imagine that the Internet is pretty much the last place I’d ever want to air my personal shit.

Usually, there’s not much worth airing anyway. But for some reason, in the past two weeks, my life has turned unrecognizably dramatic—and I find myself left with such a good story that I find can’t NOT record and share.

You’ve heard it a million tired times: truth is stranger than fiction. If I wrote and filmed what has been going on in my life these past days, you would groan and roll your eyes and say “Yeah right, that would never happen in real life.” And I would be leading the chorus of eye rolls and groans.

Because unforeseen consequences can arise out of seemingly benign information sharing, I am changing the names and some details. I am also being deliberately vague in some spots, so this might not sound quite so dramatic, but I’m just not an over-sharer. I’ve actually cut a fair amount from this post, so you’ll have to try your best to read between the lines.  Because like I said, there’s only one person who gets the whole story: he’s already got it, and his lips are sealed, until he gets a tell-all book deal.


For a few months, I was seeing someone. A laowai. Let’s call him Mark, shall we? Obviously, I liked Mark very much, though there were a few problems, mainly that I felt ignored and unimportant, because Mark was very busy. His current situation is complicated and apparently not conducive to a relationship, because he recently broke up with me. On Skype chat. To be fair, I told him to tell me on Skype chat, because when someone types ‘we need to talk,’ I find it better to just get it right then instead of agonizing over it for days. My imagination is brutal.

So on, ironically, Chinese Valentine’s Day (because apparently like salt and vinegar potato chips, one is not enough), when the breakup was fresh and admittedly painful, I knew I needed to get out of my apartment.

I slogged my way through the thick August night, basically unaware of my surroundings. An hour later, as I walked into Da Run Fa to use their restroom, I heard two girls, who may have known me, say “Hello! Hellooooo!” but I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge them. This was not the time for me to be making conversation with strangers eager to practice a few English sentences and admire my ‘high’ nose.

I wound around, ending up on a bridge over the river. And then I started crying. In public. On a bridge.  Being a giant laowai, I already intimidate the bejeezus out of at least half the Chinese population, but add tears and the fact that I was leaning against the railing of a bridge, and I may as well have been Godzilla.

For the record, I wasn’t suicidal. The one lucid thought I recall having was, “Gee, I’m crying on the railing of a bridge. This isn’t exactly a sparkling reflection on my mental health.”

I tried to calm myself down enough to move and maybe find a taxi home, but I ended up rubbing my brand-new left contact lens out onto the sidewalk. I inherited my mother’s vision—which is to say, very little vision—so going without a contact in the dark is like having a few layers of gauze draped over my eye.

So, covering my contact-less left eye with my palm and still precipitating ocularly, I walked about half a block before I started crying again. When I came to a corner  I saw an old, grandfatherly man stopped on his bike staring at me. Yes, please, I thought. Stare. Step right up! Step right up and see the crying laowai!

But instead, he asked me, in Chinese, “Why are you unhappy?” I always love it when people speak Chinese to me as if it’s a given that I’ll understand. I also took heart that at least one person in Huzhou had the humanity to ask me what was wrong.

“Don’t be unhappy,” he replied when I told him what happened. “If he doesn’t want you, that’s his problem! It’s his mistake. Don’t be unhappy. How old are you? You see— you’re still young. Don’t be unhappy. You’re still young.”

I nodded and tried to buck up, but continued to leak out my face.

“Don’t be unhappy. You know, the tighter you hold your heart in your hand, the unhappier you will be. But if you loosen it a bit instead of grasping so hard to it, you’ll be happier,” he told me. “Don’t be unhappy.”

Eventually I moved on into the night in search of a taxi and a bottle of water. After finding the latter but not the former, I continued on one of the main drags that seemed strangely taxi-less for 8:15 at night.

I walked the next two blocks, hand still covering my left eye, glancing behind me every few yards to see if a taxi might be approaching. I looked into the sky, where numerous burning red paper lanterns floated away in the dark, presumably to symbolize the eternal love of whatever couples launched them.

After crossing an intersection, I stood on the corner looking absently at the road for the elusive ‘free taxi’ light. And then I heard a male voice say, “Hello?”

Oh great, I thought. Just what I need, a hello heckler. I ignored the voice. But a moment later came a more persistent


I had no choice. I looked up and saw a good-looking young Chinese man in glasses sitting on his electric bike.

“Hi,” I said.

“Are you lost?”

“Oh, no, I was just looking for a taxi,” I said, thinking, Wow, he speaks good English.

“Oh, well I saw that you kept looking behind you and I thought maybe you were lost. Where are you going?”

We started talking and he volunteered to walk with me and help me find a taxi. He mentioned he graduated from the college  across the street from my school  four years ago and currently does business for a factory, which requires him to travel frequently to a few Asian countries. At one point he said sheepishly,

“Actually, do you  know how long I followed you?”


“I followed you from People’s Number Three Hospital.” [The mental hospital, which was a good half a mile back.]

I laughed.

There were still no taxis. He introduced himself, giving his English name, one which is so utterly bland and common that it seemed a bit funny, especially in comparison to the students I have named Sink, Pig, Darling, Freeze, and Lucifer. Let’s say that his name was Don, as in Draper.

He invited me to have a drink with him at Dio Coffee. Even though he followed me for half a mile on his electric scooter, I did not get any sort of creepy vibe—I actually liked him—so I agreed. He parked his bike and walked with me to Dio, which was romantically candle-lit for Valentine’s Day. This had another layer of irony, as Don informed me that he and his girlfriend had also recently broken up.

Practically a Cyclops, I stumbled up the stairs to our table. I spilled my tea— so charming!—and spent at least half of our 90 minute conversation basically winking at Don. Usually the people I meet on the street are overly charmed by or overly obnoxious due to the presence of this laowai, but with Don, it was like meeting a friend. We could actually relate to each other. Don held my elbow as I stumbled back down the stairs, and when we got outside, a thunder and lightning storm was kicking up. I needed a taxi, and I needed it fast.

But, of course, we got caught in the rain. Don had me stand in the shelter of a phone booth while he ventured into the rain to get me a taxi. And then, even though he had parked his scooter very close to the phone booth, he hopped in the taxi to escort me back to school.

Don texted me as I got back to my room, making sure that I was okay and not too drenched. Wow, I thought with excitement and a bit of guilt. This is not usually how my life goes.

Two nights later, I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder with Don in a booming KTV room with  four of his friends. Somehow, I heard my phone ringing beneath the heavy schmaltz of a Chinese ballad. It was Mark. Shocked, I stepped out of the room to answer.

Now he wanted to talk. He decided I would have time to talk to him on a Friday evening, so called me at the very time he wanted to meet. Sorry, I said, but I was at KTV with some friends. Could we please agree on a time to talk?

“I’m sorry, I don’t know now,” he said. I was used to getting that answer a lot. But in the ensuing two days, it  didn’t bother me as much anymore.

There I was, Mark  in my ear, Don just behind the door. All my life needed was a paternity dispute, a secret father, and some soft-lit close-ups and I’d be the next big thing in soaps.

To be continued…in one way or another.




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