Laowai and 'translator/'Guangzhou girl ' in Dalian
Walking alone at Suzhou's main shopping street, Guan Qian Jie, attracts so much attention that I sometimes prefer catching the train to Shanghai and do my shopping there in order to avoid all the staring. Half of all the staring is probably all in my head, but well... there are still days when I simply cannot put up with walking on a street and having people pointing, sniggering and giving me shameless once-overs.
Sometimes I meet my Indonesian girlfriend for a day on town and this also results in curious stares. Mainly at her, then. Having the face of an Asian everybody thinks she is Chinese and takes for granted she's stuck with being my translator (as we communicated in a mix of Chinese and English). Forget about the fact that her Chinese is far from native-sounding, a lot of people actually think she's from Guangzhou. So, every time we head for, let's say a restaurant and want to order food, the waiters speak to her. It doesn't matter if I am the one ordering, or if it's me asking something about a dish. They just give me a pitiful look before they turn to her to explain. For her it's enough to just nod, do a little 'aaaa, ahhh ahhhh aaaaa' -sound, and they nod back, in some secret understanding?! (would never work for me, I am certain).
Last week we went to have a 15-kuai-manicure in Suzhou, and the girls polishing our nails both turned to my friend and started chatting to her, before one of them whispered: "By the way, that laowai, does she understands anything?!"
-Sure she does, I said, and they both stared at me. Still, they turned back to my friend and continued talking to her. As I hate not being included, I eventually said:
-Are you sure she's Chinese?
The girls looked so confused that me and my friend started laughing and explained that my friend's from Indonesia and that we are in the same Chinese course.
Once this was out, I was suddenly included in the conversation. In fact, when the people around us heard us speak they formed a small circle around us just to listen to me speaking Chinese. It is kinds of funny that it still is considered such a 'wonder' to hear a laowai speak Chinese in China. Fair enough, it is a hard language to learn, but we are living in China... so it makes sense to be able to speak (at least a little bit of) the language of the country. But anyway, I was just happy to finally be a part of the conversation. Something tells me that if I hadn't revealed that my friend was Indonesian, rather than Chinese, I would have never got a chance to speak.
My Indonesian friend loves the fact that people take her for Chinese though. She gets a better price just by showing her face and rarely have to engage in 30-minutes-haggle-sessions like me. Her boyfriend's (the romantic guy) Chinese language skills are even better than hers (he sounds like a local) which he also benefits from when going shopping.
Once he was at an electronic market looking for some headphones. He stopped at a counter and looked at the headphones on display, asking the sales guy how much they were. The sales guy's reply:
-Oh, you wanna buy headphones? Well these ones on display are expensive, they are just for laowais. I'll grab some from the back for you. The same quality but cheaper.
Sad to think that regardless of how good my Chinese ever get, I don't think I'll get the same sort of treatment. Only for Chinese (fair enough) and Chinese looking laowais (unfair).