When we got on the train in Guiyang to go back to our sites I didn't expect to see foreigners. I never expect to see foreigners in Guizhou. Ever. But there they were, a large group of Americans, many of whom seemed to be Chinese-American. There looked to be about 30 late middle school or early high school age students. We caught several bits of conversation as we boarded the car next to theirs:
"Come over here, block that guy."
"Don't let her get through!"
They seemed to be experiencing difficulties as they were caught up in the push and shove that can only be appreciated by those who have become accustomed to such behavior. I would argue that I am a competent train-boarder, complete with my ability to let the ocean of people bump into me, breathe down my neck, and push their way to the front. I am not a stone in the river. I am the river.
We sat in our seats, but I couldn't stay for long. I needed to know why these foreigners were in Guizhou. Our Guizhou. Perhaps they had come for the waterfall.
I walked back to their car. It was a crowded car, with lost of people standing in the aisle (they bought standing tickets). Before I could inquire about their destination a girl began talking to herself loudly. "Don't tell me he's sitting in my seat, that's my seat, buddy, HEY, listen, this is my seat, not yours..."
It made me nervous. She was talking to him in English, but I'm sure her tone conveyed enough rudeness to make her and the Chinese man lose face. Of course, she was completely unaware that she had lost face. The other Americans were also unaware that their image was rapidly deteriorating in light of other similar incidents.
I watched as three American boys speaking a strange Mandarin Chinese yelled at a Chinese man who was sitting in their seat. It was strange because these boys spoke excellent Chinese and then, suddenly, they would change to English so that the other passengers didn't know what they were saying.
"This is our seat, look at this ticket!" one boy shouted in Chinese.
"I can stand here, it's a standing ticket," replied a Chinese man.
"He can't stand right by us, that's stupid," the boy said in English, and then, "let me see your ticket," in Mandarin.
"Look guys, his ticket doesn't even have a number, it's fake!" he shouted to his friends in English.
"Yeah, it's fake!" other students chimed in.
At this point I was thoroughly embarrassed. I was so embarrassed that my hands were shaking. It was easy to see that these boys had made the Chinese man lose face, and he was defending his right to stand in the aisle.
I decided to intervene.
"It's not fake; it's a standing ticket," I said.
"Then why is it more expensive than ours?" another boy asked accusingly.
"Probably because he's going farther than you," I responded.
It was awkward. This knowledge made me even more embarrassed. These students were yelling at good people. These were peasants and farmers just trying to get back to work - they couldn't even afford seats.
I turned to a girl who looked to be Chinese-American. "Listen, you should tell your friends to calm down. When someone is sitting in your seat, just say '不好意思了，我觉得你在我的坐位。‘ In China you need to be less direct, otherwise nobody is going to cooperate."
"Don't speak Chinese," she responded, "they will understand you." Then she looked away from me as if I was part of the problem they were having.
Never have I experienced such terrible behavior.
The American students continued to be rude and I decided that it was time to leave. I walked back to my car.
Later one of the American teachers passed and I flagged him down. "Where are you from? Who are those kids?"
"I teach at an International School in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) - those students are 8th graders. Most of them are Korean-Americans who have lived here for about 5 years. Their parents work in China at oil companies or in high tech fields," he said.
Terrie and I talked about it after he left.
"They have probably never been on a train before," she said.
These students who have lived in China for 5 times as long as me know less about how to interact with Chinese than I do. Me, with my terrible Chinese and my strange long hair.
As I'm writing this the incident is already two hours gone, but I'm still angry about it. I try to help maintain the image of Americans as good, hardworking, friendly people, and that picture is destroyed for an entire train-car of appalled Chinese passengers. No wonder I encounter such mixed feelings about foreigners in China.