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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Foreigner

As I enter the courtyard, I lock eyes with a boy. No one else has noticed me. After a moment of shared recognition, a scream erupts from his small frame, “WAI GUOOOOO RENNNNNNN.” One thousand heads snap in my direction. The news of the foreigner echoes through the school like a bird call. A churning sea of children sweeps me to the center of the courtyard. Dozens of beaming faces gaze up at me. Little hands stroke my hair and tug on my clothes. Soon, the tugs switch from curiosity-fueled examinations to desperate attempts to latch on for balance. The swarm of children grows more aggressive as students shove each other to get closer to me. I am surrounded by shrieks of excitement, toppling tots, and a sea of flushed faces. Hundreds of smiles, twice as many wide eyes. As they barrage me with finger pointing and cries of “Waiguo ren,” I can hear another stampede approaching. Suddenly, music wails from speakers and, without a word, the students scurry back into their classrooms.

As we enter a convenience store in Liming, a small town nestled in the valley of a national park, the shopkeeper asks us if we had been picking barley earlier that day. “Yes”, we respond, “how’d you know?”. “I saw a picture of you on WeChat!” he answers. Small world.

As I walk down the street, a stranger whips out her phone to take a picture of me. I flash her a cheesy grin. To my surprise, rather than being deterred by my acknowledgement, she asks me if we can take a picture together. I agree and we both pose for the selfie with peace signs.

As I watch the American news with my homestay family, my host mom asks me how many guns I own. “None,” I respond. My host sister follows up with, “Do you discriminate against black people?” and is sure to add, “We love Obama’s I Have A Dream Speech.”

I do not blend in here, not at all. The surface-level homogeneity of the Chinese people is striking. In the States, I cannot distinguish between who is American-born and who is a foreigner. The thought of ogling at someone of a different nationality as if he/she were a celebrity or extra-terrestrial is as foreign to me as I am to the residents of Kunming. But here, my blonde hair carries with it two things:

Firstly, it carries the preconceived notions the people of Kunming have of Westerners.

For many of the children I teach English, I am the first foreigner they have ever met. I am their entire perception of Americans. Due to the very same diversity that makes it impossible for me to tell who is a foreigner in the States, it would require extreme generalization in order to represent the American people. How do I explain what it is to be an American? It is a collection of ideas, not a shared ancient ethnicity. Especially with today’s polarized political climate, there is no standard set of beliefs that unites our people. Attempting to define our nation contradicts the very thing that makes it unique: the idea that each person is a distinct individual who is entitled to his/her own beliefs and values.

Secondly, my blond hair carries with it an invitation to approach me, even in the usually cold setting of an urban environment. My “foreignness”, has opened doors to talk with people who I never would’ve with otherwise. With each new bond formed, even if formed because of how blatantly I stick out in a crowd, I paradoxically feel less like an outsider, less alone. As I’ve begun to settle into city life, I’ve realized that blending does not equate belonging. For it is these “foreigner”-stemming interactions, along with the ones that come along with the routine of daily life, that make me feel at home.

It is the unspoken race I have with the woman in the maroon bomber jacket as I bike home from work.

It is the chuckle I receive from the traffic officer as I impatiently lug my bike up a flight of stairs and over the pedestrian bridge rather than waiting to cross the street.

It is the tissue that the convenience store clerk hands me after my weekly Saturday runs because I look so sweaty.

It is the pat on the back I feel from the one armed waitress when I order my usual (two drumsticks and a plate of greens) at my favorite restaurant.

It is the “Hui lai le ma?” that the attendant asks me when I park my bike in the apartment complex garage.

It is these interactions that make me feel like I belong.

“Wo hui jia le,” I respond to the attendant, “I’ve returned home.”