When I was living in Changchun in the 1990’s it was common to field requests to be “token foreigners” at various events or productions. Changchun is home to one of China’s largest film studios so whenever a director was in need of a foreign face for a film, he/she would call up the Foreign Student Office at Northeast Normal University and ask to borrow some foreigners.
Sometimes the officials in that office would ask us; other times they would announce that we were being taken on an outing and haul us off to the studio. Of course we never got paid; were told that it was a good opportunity to practice our Chinese. Mostly we sat around all day, drinking tea and talking amongst ourselves.
One year another student and I, a young man from Ghana, were asked to appear in a local television commercial for some kind of medicine. We spent all day mastering the phrase “[name of medicine], hao yao!” (good medicine). We had to say it in a certain rhythm, in unison, with big smiles on our faces. For some reason, it took hours for us to deliver the lines just as the director wanted us to.
As we were leaving the studio, I belatedly said to my co-star, “I suppose we should have asked what the medicine was. With my luck we have just been featured in an advertisement for birth control!”
A couple of weeks later a Chinese friend called and excitedly told me that she’d seen the ad on TV.
“What kind of medicine was it advertising?” I asked, somewhat nervously.
“Cold medicine,” she replied.
Whew! Another linguistic bullet dodged!
I thought of all that when I saw this short New York Times documentary titled “Rent-a-Foreigner in China.” It’s about a housing development in Chongqing that uses “rented” foreigners to attract customers.
“Once you put a foreigner out there, everything changes.”
That’s right. For some reason a foreign presence gives face, a truth that I think we foreigners may never understand.
“There will be Chinese people on the boat,” said the voice at the other end of the phone line. For the 5th time in as many days this was the response I got from a travel agent I had contacted asking for assistance in booking passage on a local ferry boat to take Noel and me up the Yangtze River from Yichang to Chongqing. “You’d better take a cruise ship. There will be Chinese people on the ferry.”
So far I have resisted the urge to shout into the phone I KNOW THERE WILL BE CHINESE PEOPLE ON THE BOAT. WHY WOULDN’T THERE BE? THERE ARE 1.3 BILLION OF THEM IN THIS COUNTRY. I GET THAT. THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM FOR ME.
China likes to keep foreigners in their little boxes. There is a box marked “foreign teacher;” one marked “foreign businessman;” one marked “foreign student;” and a very large box marked “foreign tourist.” Harmony in the cosmos is maintained when the foreigners remain in their boxes and function by prescribed behaviors and norms ascribed to said boxes. Clearly what we are dealing with here is a foreigner who has broken free of her box. The box in question is “foreign tourist.” Inside that box the approved way to ride a boat on the Yangtze River is to book onto one of the many cruises that cater to foreign tourists. Prices include passage, accommodations on luxury boats, food, and sightseeing.
This is not my intention. I merely want to use the boat as a means of conveyance from Yichang to Chongqing. This is not what foreign tourists do. This is too far outside the box. HEY FOREIGNER! GET BACK INTO THE BOX. BUY A CRUISE TICKET.
Yesterday afternoon I felt like I had victory (and a ticket) in sight. I had managed to get through to the CTS office in Yichang and was talking to a nice young agent about my situation. Except for the fact that he was a pleasant chap and had impeccable English, I felt like I had been transported back to 1985. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: I am trying to buy a ticket on the ferry from Yichang to Chongqing. Can you help me?
He: Yes, we can help you buy a ticket for a cruise.
Me: I don’t want to buy a cruise ticket. I just need a ticket to ride a boat to Chongqing. Here is a website. Please open it. Do you see the schedule for the ferry? I want a ticket on that boat. See, it has the schedule and even the fare. I need 2 first class tickets.
He: But there will be Chinese people on the ferry.
Me: I know. I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like Chinese people. Some of my best friends are Chinese people.
He: I will check.
Me: Thank you.
He. I’m sorry, we do not have 2 day cruises. We only have 3 day cruises.
Me: Did you say cruise? I don’t want a cruise. I just want a ticket on a boat.
He: Oh. Well, there is an ordinary boat used by locals, but there will be Chinese people on the boat.
Me: I know. As I told you before, I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like them. What time does it leave Yichang on Monday, March 5?
Me: What time does it arrive into Chongqing on Wednesday, March 7?
Me: How much is the ticket?
He: 850 yuan. But that is only the bed. No food. No sightseeing.
Me: Is that first class, in a room with 2 beds?
He: Yes, but you will have to share a room with a Chinese person.
Me: No, I need to buy two tickets. I am travelling with another friend. We want to buy two beds in one room. Can you help me buy the tickets?
He: (sucking teeth). I think it will be better for you to come to Yichang and go to the ferry terminal and purchase the ticket yourself. It will be cheaper.
Me: But I am in Beijing, and will not arrive in Yichang until Sunday the 4th. I am afraid that I will go to the terminal and they will tell me there are no tickets. Then I will have a big problem.
Me: If I pay you a service charge, will you buy the tickets for me? What is your service charge? (at this point I was willing to pay anything, even if it meant paying more than a cruise ticket – as a matter of principle)
He: 50 yuan.
Me: Great. How can I send you the money?
He: (sucking teeth) I must first make sure that foreigners are allowed to buy tickets on this boat. Normally only Chinese people ride this boat.
It was at this point that I switched into Chinese and, mustering all of the political jargon I have absorbed in my 25+ years here, gave the poor fellow a fine lecture:
“KEEPING FOREIGNERS AND CHINESE PEOPLE SEPARATED IS AN EXAMPLE OF OUT-DATED THINKING. NOW IT IS THE 21ST CENTURY. CHINA HAS HAD MORE THAN 30 YEARS OF THE OPENING AND REFORM POLICY. IN 1985 I WAS ABLE TO RIDE THIS BOAT WITH CHINESE PEOPLE. NOW PEOPLE’S MINDS AND HEARTS HAVE BEEN LIBERATED AND CHINESE PEOPLE AND FOREIGNERS ARE FRIENDS. SO IT IS NOT POSSIBLE THAT IN 2012 FOREIGNERS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO BUY A TICKET ON A LOCAL BOAT.”
Not only had the foreigner refused to return to her box, she had now firmly planted her flag by revealing her ability to speak Chinese. He chuckled (a good sign) and sucked his teeth (a bad sign) and told me he would check and call me back tomorrow.
Those were hard words to hear. I felt I had come so very close to achieving my goal, only to have it (possibly) slip through my fingers again.
What will this day bring? Will it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?
If this doesn’t work, I call a friend who has a student who has a brother in Yichang.
….and if anyone out there knows someone in Yichang who can help, please let me know!