A Tale of Two Cities

Hey-oh! I got back from Kyoto, Japan…Wednesday. Well I got back to China Wednesday night, I didn’t get back to Yan’an until Thursday afternoon. A story for another time. Suffice to say I was very irritable by the time I got back to my apartment.

This is something I thought about writing while I was in Japan, but I put it off uncertain if it was finally being in my dream country that had my opinion skewed. And I almost wrote it yesterday, but again, I was less than pleased with the previous twenty-four hours and running on four hours of sleep. But now I’m back at my apartment and rested and the feeling is still there.


I don’t like China.

Or perhaps I should say I don’t like modern China. Historically, China is on par with Egypt with how many ancient and incredible things are scattered across this landscape. The Great Wall is always the first thing that comes to mind, but throw a dart at any city or town in this country and I guarantee you’ll find at least one building in that town that was built five hundred years ago. And maybe I threw the dart at the wrong town but where I am now, I don’t like China.

I realized it the first night I was in Kyoto. I realized how stressed and anxiety riddled I’ve been for the last couple of months because suddenly it was all gone. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll do my damndest.

I am a classic introvert. I prefer doing my own thing with minimal interaction with others. It’s probably why solo travel has never seemed so daunting for me. I am a background character. I do not like the spotlight. I don’t like undue attention. I’d rather just go about my day with no one the wiser. Sure, for some that’s their own version of hell, but for me it works.

I am not a background character here. Here, I am center stage. I am the headlining actress at the biggest show you can think of. Everyone watches me. I cannot walk down the street without people watching me go by. Some people will pause mid-step or mid-conversation and stare at me. And I knew coming in that I was going to be under an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny being a foreigner here, but I had assumed after a couple months people would become accustomed to my presence and I’d fade back into the background.

This is not the case.

Sitting on the bus yesterday on my way back to my apartment I sat in the back and had three people turn in their seats to stare at me. The school kids that got onboard clustered—what they consider—a “safe” distance from the foreigner and stared and pointed.

If you want a day in my life here, grab a Sharpie and write “Fuck You” across your forehead and go about your daily business. Watch people stare or cross the street or come up right in your face to look you over.

I’ve had people follow me in stores and on the streets. It was amusing back in March when the people at the supermarket wanted to take a selfie with me. But it’s October. I had a lady almost faceplant while she ran to catch up to me so she could snap a quick picture. I don’t take the elevator at my school unless I’m late because it never fails that all the people who squeeze on with me will stare or take pictures.

I feel like an escaped zoo animal.

I’ve also had people grab me. I had an old man try to pull my bandana off my head while I was eating lunch at Phoenix Square. I’ve had people touch my hair, touch my skin, tug on my clothes. Mothers sometimes send their children over to hug me. Fuck no. Get away from me. I stopped eating lunch in Phoenix Square during my lunch break because no matter where I go there is always someone who follows, someone who wants their kid to come up and say Hi and repeat whatever sentence they’ve learned in school.

I learned the word for “I don’t know what you’re saying” in Chinese and tried that for a while but that doesn’t stop them from trying to talk to me. Trying to take pictures, trying to touch me. So now I answer in German and leave before they figure out what I said wasn’t quite English.

I don’t go outside anymore. I realized that the first day I was in Kyoto. I was up and out of the hostel by 8am and wandering up and down the streets and snapping pictures of things. I used to do that here. But I don’t anymore. I don’t know when I stopped doing it. I’ve been trying to remember but it wasn’t a conscious decision. At some point the stress of going outside and dealing with the stares and the touching and the unrelenting attention outweighed my curiosity about this place. I don’t leave unless I have to for that bullshit English Corner or meetings or class. And even then I dread going out the door.

It wasn’t like that in Kyoto. I walked over a hundred miles in the nine days I was there and never once did I feel like every person on the street was staring at me. I felt like a person again. I faded straight back into the background and took so many pictures and saw beautiful shrines and temples and enjoyed them at my own pace without someone shadowing me or schoolkids staring or people trying to touch me. In fact, the only time anyone touched me was on a crowded bus, and even then they said Excuse Me as they squeezed by.

Even in the small town I went to in search of ninjas I didn’t have that pervasive feeling of people staring.

And I walked around Kyoto at night. I never leave this apartment after sunset. Last time I did that I had a group of guys follow me halfway back. But in Kyoto I walked down quiet side streets to get to my hostel and had men and women pass me without a second glance both walking and on bikes. This is really hard to explain, but ladies I know you know that feeling of hypervigilance you get when you’re on a quiet street alone. I didn’t feel that. I wasn’t walking around with my headphones on or waving my passport and cash around, but I didn’t feel like I had to have on battle armor as I was walking. I make light of my Resting Bitch Face, but it’s a gift when you’re alone late at night. But I didn’t have to crank it up to 11. I just had my regular ‘Thinking about dinner, but my face says Fuck You’ look.

It’s not like that here in China. I never leave my apartment without my headphones and sunglasses. It can be raining cats and dogs or half an hour until sunset, doesn’t matter. My Ipod battery could be dead, but I will still have those headphones in. Every time I walk outside I go full throttle with the ‘Fuck outta my face’ look. And still people touch me, encourage their kids to come up and touch me or talk to me or follow me.

I tried to break my contract back in August during the summer break. Did I tell you all that? I can’t remember. I spent about three weeks in Ho Chi Minh with friends and wanted to move there. There was still staring, but I was insulated enough being with other foreigners that it wasn’t enough to make my hackles rise. But the notice I sent to the people at the school went unread until literally two days before classes were supposed to start and the gods-cursed sense of responsibility I have wouldn’t let me back out and leave them without a teacher.

By the second full day I was in Kyoto, I considered flying back to China, packing my bag and coming back to Japan and finding a job. Literally the only reason I didn’t is because I need the manager at the school to transfer money between my China bank account and my US account. Foreigners can hardly wipe their own asses in this country without needing to present a passport to do it. I can’t stand the constriction. The only time I had to show anyone my passport in Japan was in Immigration and checking into my hostels. That’s it. Here, I had to use my passport to buy a train ticket and then I had to show it again when they came through doing random ID checks. I’m half-surprised I don’t need to show it when I get on the goddamn bus.

This school is a flaming train wreck nothing short of a complete restructuring and mass retraining is going to fix. The only one of the Chinese teachers that actually enjoys teaching is only there once a week now since she got a better paying job at a public school. The other two are only here because they have bills to pay. They don’t like kids and they don’t like teaching. The other Foreign teacher they brought in for this semester is in the same boat. He’s taking classes at a university in Xi’an and this is just extra money in his pocket.

I signed a contract for a year, and when I couldn’t break that contract back in August I dug my claws in to bully myself through this last semester because a year of teaching experience is a year of experience. But since I got back from Kyoto those days on the calendar look longer and longer.


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