I looked out the minibus window. Four bloodied bodies lay on the road. Behind them, two vans, crushed like tin cans, were fused in a wonky embrace.
The men were indeed dead but they hadn’t been for long. Their blood was as bright and shiny as fresh paint. I gaped at their small, strong bodies dressed in faded blue Mao suits and their wide, nut-brown faces. The institute director, Mr Li, was wearing a Mao suit too, but his was dark blue with a pen in the breast pocket, and his skin was the colour of parchment.
I’d been in China less than four hours and already I’d been fumigated at Beijing Airport and confronted with dead bodies. The fumigation was to protect against AIDS, an illness found only in the decadent West. It was October 1987. The Tiananmen Square protests were 20 months away. China was in transition. Everyone I met during my year as an English teacher at the Tianjin Institute of Light Industry had been damaged by the Cultural Revolution, but the memories were starting to fade; a new China of skyscrapers, millionaires and one country, two systems was rising.
On the drive from Beijing to Tianjin, I learnt a lot about the country that was to be my home for the next year. I learnt that life was cheap. That Chinese people laughed when they were frightened. That the roads were terrible.
My God, the roads.
‘You cycle too fast,’ Mr Li told me when, to his fury, I purchased a bicycle. The Tianjin roads were clogged with battalions of cyclists moving at a somnambulant pace. Dodging potholes, I wove in and out of them on my way from the institute to the city centre.
That initial drive to Tianjin taught me something else too. In China, a foreigner cannot hide. When I put my face to the minibus window to rubberneck the dead bodies on the road, the crowd of onlookers immediately spotted me and turned from the corpses to stare at me. In China, it’s no ruder to stare at the living than at the dead. A man on the edge of the crowd gobbed noisily on the ground, his eyes fixed on my face. For the first time, I heard a phrase that was to define my stay: lao wai. It meant old foreigner.
I’d come to China because I wanted to experience a different culture. I’m not sure what I expected but I think it had something to do with exotic food, music and landscapes.
I didn’t expect to be an old foreigner. And I didn’t expect the institute staff to try to control my private life. When I spent a weekend in Beijing with an American boyfriend, I returned to find the place in uproar. I’d left without permission and could have been kidnapped, Mr Li told me.
‘It’s the weekend,’ I protested in my entitled Western way. ‘I can do what I like.’
Doing what you liked was a concept unknown to my hosts. If I’d been a Chinese teacher, I couldn’t have travelled to Beijing without permission. At that time, a Chinese person needed a travel permit from their work unit to buy a train ticket or check into a guest house.
Even with a travel permit, a Chinese woman couldn’t stay in a guest house with a boyfriend. People had to be married to share a room. This sexual prudishness was unexpected too. In post-Mao China, it was considered unseemly for a woman to show her collar bones. Premarital sex was taboo – and almost impossible. There was nowhere private to go, and people had to request contraception, which was only granted to married couples, from their work units.
Before long, I felt under siege. My boyfriend wasn’t allowed to stay with me in my room at the institute. Instead, I was plagued by a constant stream of students, who visited me so that I wouldn’t be lonely. Lonely? I longed for time alone. When I didn’t answer their knock one evening, they stood on chairs and banged on the window above my door, waving excitedly.
After that, I covered the window with newspaper. Anywhere else, I’d have gone out to escape them. But as soon as I stepped outside the compound gates, I felt staring eyes on me and heard the chant of lao wai. Even in freezing winter, when I cycled home in the dark swaddled in padded garments, a pollution mask pulled down over my nose and mouth, a chorus of lao wai pursued me as I swerved round passing carts of ‘night soil’ – human excrement used as fertiliser.
One day, two teenage girls followed me in a local market. ‘Lao wai,’ they shrieked from behind their hands. ‘Lao wai. Lao wai.’ A red mist descended. Before I knew it, I had one of them by the lapels. Her terrified face was millimetres from mine when I came to my senses and let her go.
Months later, I finally adjusted to my situation. I was on a rammed bus, travelling into town. The drumbeat of lao wai began, and something inside me snapped.
I stood tall. ‘Yes, I am an old foreigner,’ I proclaimed in my sketchy Mandarin.
In the horrified silence that followed, a little girl tapped me shyly on the arm and offered me a small plastic biro. As I accepted it, I wondered what I could give her in return. I’d heard Chinese children prized foreign stamps. I had a couple of British stamps in my purse. It seemed unlikely that the girl would want a second-class stamp she couldn’t use, but I took one out and gave it to her.
Her eyes opened wide. Never have I seen such innocent wonderment. We smiled, and the people on the bus smiled with us. For a moment at least, we were one.
Fiona Rintoul is a writer and translator. Her latest book, Whisky Island, celebrates the Isle of Islay’s whisky distilleries. Her novel, The Leipzig Affair, was short-listed in the Saltire awards and serialised on BBC R4’s Book at Bedtime. She is the translator of Outside Verdun by Arnold Zweig.
"Old Foreigner" won second place in the 2017 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition. The judge, Graham Mercer, had the following to say about the piece:
'When you only have 1,000 words to play with it pays to grab the reader by the throat – and quickly. This writer does so in the first sentence. “They are dead”, grinned Mrs. Wu”. It isn’t just the “dead” that catches our attention but the fact that Mrs. Wu is grinning.
'For this single sentence encapsulates the article’s main theme, the often glaring, sometimes disturbing differences between cultures. The writer has already been “fumigated against AIDS” and witnessed a fatal road accident but worse still, in a “China in transition” after the Cultural Revolution, she finds herself in a country where “a foreigner cannot hide”, and where she is forever pointed out as “Lao wai!” – “old foreigner”.
'Most travellers who find themselves “trapped” (however voluntarily) in an alien culture will know the frustrations and tensions that this can cause - the author actually grabs one of her tormentors “by the lapels”. Fortunately the situation, fraught with unpleasant possibilities, is amicably resolved after the writer admits – in Mandarin – that she is indeed “an old foreigner”. A second-hand ball-point is exchanged for second-hand postage stamps. “And for a moment at least, we were one”. A satisfying solution and a pleasing ending to a well-written essay.'