The other day my wife and I were walking through a kind of upscale mall when we heard (in English) “Hey foreigner! Come here! Foreigner buy things!”
This isn’t unusual for me. There is a joke in my organization that being a foreigner in China is like being an animal in the zoo (it is for this reason that we honestly do not sit near windows while we eat). People treat you like you are famous, but you really wish you weren’t. Kyle and I used to play pool in the very back of the dingiest, darkest pool hall in Longzhou because it was the only public place we could go and only be mildly bothered by gawkers. Imagine if every time you went shopping there were whispers each time you placed something in your cart.
The handbook I was given when I first arrived in China warned against learning how to swear just so you tell them exactly where to go whenever someone says “hello” to you. We new comers thought that who ever had written it must have been in China far too long. So far I’ve just barely managed to stay within those guidelines.
Before you judge me too much for this, you have to understand how many kinds of “hello” there are. There is the sweet and simple “hi” from students walking by on campus. There is the over eager “hello, can we be friends?” from the student you were trying to avoid. There is the “HAALLOOO” shouted from the back of a motorcycle, shared by two fully grown men, giggling like school girls. There is also the chorus of “heelllooo” that comes from a passing pack of children, who seem to be playing a rousing round of irritate the foreigners.
Each “hello” says so much more than the word implies, for most of the people I meet it is their entire English vocabulary. The “hello” from the construction workers across the street directed at my wife (or me?) sounds like the stereotypical cat call we imagine construction workers spending their lunch breaks perfecting. From the guy on the back of the motorcycle, it feels like we are the butt of the cruelest joke he could imagine, and that the joke is deeply racist. From the over eager student, “hello” is just a pretense for asking us for a favor that will never be repaid, for a co-worker we never really liked.
When we talk with people about all of the hello-ing they tell us that these people are just being friendly. However in Chinese culture no one greets strangers, not even classmates that you aren’t close friends with. So all the attention serves as a reminder that we are not like everyone else.