The lady at the fruit stand knows me.
I mean the fruit stand closest to my apartment, the one on the left — one of two apparent competitors side by side on the block of shops that leads to Restaurant Row. My first week on campus, she had some firm, unbruised bananas with green at the tips, which meant they would last a while. The pink-cheeked woman, perhaps in her early 30s, smiled at me, weighed the bunch I had selected, bagged it and held up her fingers to tell me the price. She seemed pleased when I handed her the correct amount, and we exchanged xie xie’s. A few days later, I stopped for oranges; this time I didn’t understand the price – it was 12.5 yuan, and the five fingers she held up for .5 threw me — so she wrote it down. By the end of the week, she would smile and nod when I passed, even if I wasn’t shopping that day. When I bought a whole pineapple, she gestured to ask if I wanted it trimmed and spent a good 10 minutes scraping off the rough brown exterior, then removing the eyes in that same spiral pattern I find so pretty at the Dominican fruit stands in Hamilton Heights. As I waited, I held my wallet under my arm; a zipper pull snagged my Icelandic wool jacket, and I could neither free it nor open the wallet to pay her. Never mind: she rushed to the rescue, and we both laughed. Now when I pass, I say “Hi!” if I forget I’m in China and should be saying “Ni hao,” and she says “Hi!” right back. Clearly I will never be able to shop next door.
Of course, the lady at the fruit stand has no trouble picking me out in the passing crowd. As one of exactly nine foreign teachers (five Americans, one Brit, one Ukrainian, one former-Soviet-Republic-of-Georgian and one Japanese) on a campus of 35,000, I stand out. On the first day of school, I was way too conscientious and arrived at the Foreign Studies Building absurdly early for class, so I decided to kill time by walking around outside. Within minutes, two girls had come up to me, arm in arm, as close friends travel here. “Hello!” they said. “Are you the new foreign teacher?” Everyone had heard that there were a few new ones this semester, and it stood to reason that any strange Westerner must be one of them. They wanted to know everything about me — my name, where I was from, where I was living, what I was teaching, which of their teachers I knew – and soon three more girls joined them. In the first class, I had all the students introduce themselves, then simulated a press conference so they could question me. By the afternoon class, word had gotten around: “You were a journalist?”
Last Friday, I was on my way to lunch at another teacher’s apartment. “Diane!” I heard behind me. I turned to see a young Chinese woman whose face I didn’t recall from class – but then, I had 160 students at that point (I’m now up to 180-plus), so I couldn’t be sure. “I am Portia,” she said, and I realized she was the protegee of the teacher who was serving lunch. “How did you know it was me?” I asked rhetorically. I was a foreigner she hadn’t met; I was walking in the direction of her teacher’s apartment. Who else could I be?
In the dining room at Will Long Cake on Restaurant Row (I’ve since found two Will Longs in downtown Xiangtan), I’m automatically brought the English menu – the single English menu on the premises, apparently. But is that because the waitresses recognize me after several meals there, or because it’s obvious I’ll need one? And why do they bring me only a soup spoon, never chopsticks, when I order a rice bowl, an all-in-one casserole dish topped with meat, stir-fried cabbage and a fried egg? At first I suspected they assumed I couldn’t handle chopsticks, but then, at lunch with the other American teachers in a campus canteen, I noticed that the rice bowl arrived with only a soupspoon. And on my next trip to Will Long, I saw that a Chinese man was using a soupspoon on his rice bowl, too.
At my apartment building, an elderly woman dressed in navy blue (so far), who is rumored to be the great-aunt of my boss, seems to be the de facto concierge. On our first meeting, as I fumbled for my keys with my arms full from shopping, I was startled to see her face emerge from the shadows just inside the gate, where she was sitting. She could have opened the gate for me but instead pointed to the smallest key on my ring and indicated I should use it – which, still fumbling, I did. Not the friendliest welcome, I thought, but in the next few days, whenever we crossed paths, I was sure to greet her with an enthusiastic “Ni hao!” even though I was pretty sure what she was saying back meant “Crazy foreigner, thinks she speaks Chinese.” One rainy morning, I came down the stairs just as she was coming in and folding a small umbrella. She looked at me and pointed outside, as if to say, “It’s raining.” “Dui,” I responded – yes – and pulled the billowy hood of my raincoat, which I prefer to an umbrella, over my head. She gestured again, and again I motioned to my hood. This time she held out her umbrella and seemed to be insisting that I take it. I shook my head, gave the hood one last pull, said “Xie xie! Zai jian!” and left, this time with a smile, but once again convinced she was thinking, “Crazy foreigner!”
Being so visible, I need to be on good behavior at all times. This is not New York, where a screaming fit on any subway train or street corner will scarcely be noticed, since almost everyone is acting out most of the time. Here even the slightest eccentricity will color perceptions of foreigners in general, Americans in particular, and me most of all. In the words of some of my neighbors back home, I’m representing. So there will be no public meltdowns here. If students I don’t even know want to chat for an hour at lunchtime when I’d rather read The New Yorker and decompress, then a chat there will be. Either way, word will get around.
On Saturday, I made my first solo voyage into downtown Xiangtan on the No. 14 bus, and I just couldn’t help myself: I had to go to McDonald’s for my first Western food of any kind in three weeks. From the all-Chinese signs above the counter, I made my choice: the No. 2 meal, double cheeseburger with fries and Coke. When my turn came, a slight young man in a striped shirt and glasses asked for my order, in English, and rang up my purchase, 20 yuan. (For two more, about 15 cents, I could have supersized it, though he did not use the word “supersize.”) Then he asked me, in extra-careful English: “Ex-cuse me, are you a teach-er at Hunan Uni-ver-sity of Science and Tech-nol-ogy?”
“I am a student there — engineering,” he explained. “I’ve seen you around.”
The Xiangtan McDonald’s may never know me as well as the old Broadway Diner at Broadway and 55th, where the waitresses would bring me iced tea, extra ice and lemon, as soon as I sat down. But in a city of a million on the other side of the world, it’s a start.
Postscript: This morning as I was waiting for the shuttle bus, I smiled at a Little Emperor being wheeled by his grandmother in a rather elaborate car-shaped stroller. “Ni hao!” I said to the baby. Grandma started talking to me — in Chinese, of course — and pointing toward the main library, as if she thought I should be going there . Rosetta Stone does not teach the phrase for “I don’t speak Chinese,” so I just kept smiling and shaking my head, and soon they went on their way. Later the bus passed them, and as I looked out the open back, Grandma noticed me, smiled broadly and waved. I waved back. I think I may be seeing them again.