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Lost in Laowai Land


I originally published this article in August of 2013 while home in Prince Edward Island for the first time in 5 years and after having lived in Shanghai for 4 years. A few years have passed since that time and in a month I am once again going home. Right now I am wondering if my impression will be the same as last time. This time, however, I will visit both the west cost and east coast. I’m sure British Columbia, that I now consider my real Canadian home, and the home of my childhood have changed and so have I right along with it. I suspect I am more Chinese now than I ever was… In re-publishing this article, unlike my recent post of “In Search of Mark Kitto”, I have re-edited the original and hopefully improved it. So if you read the old version, i hope you notice the changes I have made. PS. “Laowai” means “foreigner” in China and we foreigners get called that all the time… even by people that know us.


The Ugly Chinaman: a bit of background for this post

After writing my last post I did two things. One thing was to read Bo yang’s “The Ugly Chinaman” (Chouloude Zhongguoren 醜陋的中國人), and the other thing was going home. Both of these things in addition to the thoughts in China Changes You (an article I previously published on KlanStar.com and may re-publish again here on Dat Lyfe) proved to be connected in more ways than I expected.

51mfjxgzwul-_sx331_bo1204203200_For anyone unfamiliar with Bo Yang and his collection of criticisms on Chinese culture, it is a collection if essays and speeches he delivered on the ugliness of Chinese people both at home and abroad after his imprisonment in Chang Kai-shek’s fascist Taiwan. It remains today as controversial as it was when he published it. (Today it is, of course, banned in the PRC in case you are wondering but is required high school reading material in Hong Kong).

Besides giving plenty of examples of the behavior of Chinese people, in it he tells of his experiences while visiting America, particularly where politeness is concerned. He humorously says “I’ve always felt that the queue is an ideal barometer of measuring how civilized a country  is. Though I only spent two months in the USA, I was about to suggest changing the name of that country from the United States of America to the United Queuers of America. In the USA, not only is queuing a national compulsion, it’s a national disaster, and I can only pity all those obedient people who waste precious time lining up in neat rows.” He goes on to explain how it is in China: “In China, queuing up is an abstract concept, while in the USA it is away of life. In Taipei locals practice a sort of quasi-queuing. They’ll line up in an orderly fashion at a bus stop, but the moment the bus appears, all chaos breaks out. The brawny types cut a bloody path through the crowd and claim all the seats, while the old and the infirm , the handicapped and the war veterans, bearing the scars of battle, bring up the rear. Why queue in the first place?” A far cry from how Americans are brought up to behave and the same goes for my home country, Canada, as well.

Chinese Crowds... No Queue possible.
Chinese Crowds… No Queue possible.


After reading his book over a 2 day span, I started thinking of what my impression of Canadian culture would be like after having spent so much time in China. I fully expected to be a bit out of practice with the niceties of Canadian interaction of course, but I have always stood fast against the onslaught of Chinese “rudeness” (read: normality) to which I am continuously exposed to and always striving to treat people the way I prefer to be treated. In China I hopefully stand out, not just for my foreignness, but also for my Canadian politeness. I may get funny looks from the shop keeper when I thank her for giving me my change or when I say “than you” to the taxi driver for not making this ride my last when I arrive at my destination, but I do it anyway. I hope it makes them feel their service is appreciated…


Time to Go… Home!

Arriving at Shanghai’s PuDong airport, having people crowding the ticket counter and wedging themselves between me and the ticket agent like this is the last flight before the apocalypse, I swallowed my annoyance and consoled myself that soon I would be out of this land of elbowing ayi’s and hordes that never learned what an “indoor voice” is. Boarding the plane was similarly nightmarish with locals shoving, butting in line, and generally acting like a bunch of spoilt kindergarten kids… or farm animals. Truly, Bo Yang was right, “there is no civilization in China” Also no logic, truth be told. Just think about it. Every ticket has a seat number, and no matter how much you push, shove, and butt ahead, you will have to sit in the seat reserved for you… and you’ll arrive at your destination the same time as everyone else. So why act like a bunch of farm animals making their way to the feeding trough? There is no “why”… This is China! (Actually, there are reasons, 2000+ years of Confucian caused decline as Bo Yang’s book makes clear.)

So there I was, having survived my co-travelers uncouth proclivities, safely aboard the plane all ready to take off, which we didn’t for about 45 minutes of course. This allowed the passengers time to take down their bags from the overhead bins that they had just recently been so absorbed with ramming their over-sized and over numbered carry-on bags into. Seemingly all of my local travelers had to get out their computers and iPads so they could entertain themselves with angry birds, fruit slicing, Korean soaps and other suitably mindless distractions. This was all fine and dandy until it was time to take off. In true laowai fashion, not one of the economy section attendants was Chinese, nor was one below 50 and even slightly attractive or congenial. (Go Air Canada!) and when the English and French instructions to turn off electronic devices, stow luggage, and buckle up were completely ignored and not understood by my fellow travelling companions, they reacted by telling Chinese passengers in louder voices (as if hearing was the problem) and harsher tones to put their damn computers away and turn off their phones.

This situation was quite comical to some of my Chinese co-travelers who repeatedly refused to follow the likely misunderstood instructions and kept launching feathered projectiles an attacking defenseless fruit with karate chops on their led lit screens. One middle aged man even thought the 50+ year old battle hardened flight attendant was joking and laughed after her third attempt to get him to put his phone away. Exasperated she snapped “Yeah yeah… You think this is funny huh. This no laughing matter. This is serious!” As she grabbed the phone from the man’s hands and shoved it into the seat pocket in front of him. “Doesn’t she know this guy has never been on a plane before? Hell, this is probably his first time he’s been off the farm.” I thought and chuckled to myself. But then the thought, “Is it really serious?” crept in… Think about it. Would a phone not “stowed for take off” really down a Boeing 777? No. What was serious was the rule. “Welcome to Canada buddy!” I thought to myself, “A land where rules trump common sense… most of the time?” With the linguistic and cultural misunderstandings sorted, all phones and other items finally safely tucked away so our plane wouldn’t burst into a fiery ball of death and plunge into the East China Sea, we were ready for take off… And 13 hours of purgatory no creature on god’s green earth is actually built to endure.

Goodbye Shanghai
Goodbye Shanghai


Welcome to Toronto

Landing and debarking was similar to departure and boarding with people pushing and shoving and trying to be the first to stand in the aisle before the fasten seat-belt light had been extinguished.  Then it was the shove push shove scenario all the way through the airport as if Toronto was only open to the first ten people through the gate. “They’ll get an awakening,” I thought. “Canada with all its rules and politeness will chew them up and spit them out in no time. Ahh, it is good to be home.” But I wasn’t home, I was just transferring.

The first thing I did while waiting for my next flight to depart Pearson was to go looking for a smoking room. Fourteen hours without a cig and I was going through minor withdrawal. After searching throughout the terminal I had been sequestered to wait in, I couldn’t seem to find a smoking room. No where did I see a “no smoking” sign, but I knew that meant nothing. Canadians don’t smoke like the Chinese do. They think it’s nasty and dirty and not the best for one’s health so they pack smokers into tiny little cubicles so they can suffocate as they get their nicotine fix.  So where was that damn cubicle!? Answer: It wasn’t…

I stopped an un-harried flight attendant, no younger than the ones who endured the hell of my trans continental flight, but one with a smile so I knew she couldn’t have been on it and asked: “Where’s the smoking room?” “There is none” she said, “there haven’t been smoking rooms at Pearson International in 6 years.” At that moment, I started to miss China. Even if there were no smoking rooms and a no smoking policy in any Chinese building, I could have still lit up and puffed away to my lungs’ content in the nearest stairwell. Not so in Canada. Probably I would have been arrested, charged with a capital offence (Smoking is dangerous you know, especially if they catch you doing it in a public non-smoking space!) and sent to the smokers gulag (There probably is one… somewhere). So I decided to refrain from the nasty habit of relaxing and enjoying oneself until I made it to my final destination… which turned out to be 2 more hours away than I had planned due to repeated delays that I thought I’d left behind in China.

To keep myself occupied during the extended wait, I went to Starbucks to grab a coffee. “May I help you” the barista asked. “Well, I guess you may”, I thought. “Woyao…” I started, “Hmm I’ll have a coffee.” I finally stammered. “Regular coffee?” she inquired. “Eah, eah, eah.”  I grunted agreement in Chinese fashion, surprising me and making me feel like a not long awakened caveman thawed out of a Canadian glacier. Embarrassed I quickly said “Yeah, sure”.  After it was poured, presented, money presented, change acquired, and the customary “thank yous” were offered repeatedly by both of us, I made my way to the cream and sugar counter wondering when the next embarrassing sounds would leap from my lips and just what the two of us had been so thankful for.

Finally my overly delayed flight began boarding, by row number of all things un-Chinese. Since it only sat about 60 people, “was boarding by row numbers really necessary?” I wondered. Oh well, “This is Canada”, I thought, “Rules for the sake of rules.” There was no pushing, no shoving, nobody carrying 6 bags into the cabin… there were no Chinese people. At take off everything was smooth and orderly and no attendants lost their cool. Needless to say, when I arrived in PEI, my first order of business was to get outside, light a smoke, and get a head-rush even the best weed couldn’t have matched. Ahhh, tobacco! Returning to the baggage claim to find my bags, I was practically drunk. I was home at last.


Home at Last

Even though it was 3am when I ventured through Charlottetown in a car piloted by my father, I knew I was now far away from China. Even if I had been teleported in my sleep by some magic and had awoken in this moving vehicle, even if I hadn’t glanced at the driver, I would have known I was in a different world. No it wasn’t the lack of people. The streets in China are pretty much deserted at 3am too. No, it wasn’t the small short buildings or the somewhat narrow streets. Not everywhere in the Middle Kingdom is as built up as Shanghai. No, what would have given the situation away was that the car stopped at every stop light and obeyed every traffic law, and did not use he horn once.  That is how I would have known. No Chinese driver in their right mind (the “wrong mind” for non-Chinese people) would have been bothered with any regulations on these deserted roads. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even have bothered with headlights (Chinese drivers can navigate dark roads like bats using their car’s horn as an echolocation device.)

We made our way out of the “city” and on to the village of my youth. For the first couple of days after I got there I didn’t do much. It was good to be home, but I was on China time and the jet lag was hitting me like a ton of bricks. So I stayed home and quietly occupied myself with watching TV in-between random chatter and catching up on the past 5+ years with my folks. Besides being smitten with the urge to be slothful as the novelty of English language TV took hold, I also enjoyed the freedom of internet usage Canadians fail to fully appreciate (You never know how great something is until you lose it!). That being the case, I quickly got reacquainted with facebook, youtube, and other unproductive distractions I never seem to use much in China even though I have a VPN.

fisherman-house pei-beach pei-road pei-warf potatoes











That’s a lot of Food

The first thing that quite shocked me those first days was the size of meal portions gladly placed in front of me by my smiling mother or the smiling waitress at the nearby take-out. “Holy shit. How do people eat this?” I wondered out loud in front of the concerned faces of those who looked on. “I mean. It’s just so much! This plate has about a pound of French fries on it!” This would be the case for the rest of my 2 week stay, being presented with mounds of food on impossibly big plates (I am more accustomed to small personal rice bowls these days) and being equally shocked that no one else wasn’t astounded with the heaps of food they were expected to consume and were proceeding to “dive in” as if it were a perfectly normal to consume enough food for a family of four in one sitting. Which of course it was… normal, for them.  A fact immediately backed up by the sheer girth of my former countrymen. “Damn, people in Canada are fat!”

Besides my longing for “normal” food (Chinese food) and my worries about ballooning to significant proportions during my two week stay, I was shocked by how slow the pace of life was and what that was doing to me. In Shanghai a city of never ending noise and chaos, I work full time, spend far too much time underground in transit, and then do my best to fill up all my other available time with my online pursuits like running this site and gaming, and devouring a book a week off-line. At my childhood home, doing nothing seemed the most natural thing to do, and for many who were still there in PEI (not everyone I grew up with had left thankfully), that is exactly what they were doing. Even those involved in doing actual work seemed immensely slow and preoccupied. For example, in Charlottetown I saw a building under construction. It was 4 stories and not particularly large. “They’ve been working on that for 2 years”, my father informed me. Looking on, my only response was, “That’d be about a week’s work in Shanghai.” I guess Chinese really are hard working…


China: Closer than I Thought

Just down the country road from my home there is a large fish processing plant and cold storage facility. After quitting high school, I returned from British Columbia in the summers to slave away there with the locals who were primarily concerned with putting in enough hours to get their “Employment Insurance” so they could do nothing the rest of the year. So I decided to re-walk some of my younger steps and went to take a look. Well, times have changed. Many locals have migrated to Alberta, Toronto, and other areas of Canada where industry is not simply agrarian these days, to work these days where there is better pay and they don’t have to rely on ever shrinking EI payments and the work is now being completed by Chinese migrants. What a different world a few years make. Chinese migrant labour in my hometown… No one would have believed it was possible just a few years ago. And they are not the only Chinese. A few minutes down another road not far from the house I grew up in, there is a Buddhist Monastery tucked away behind some trees housing 500 or 600 Taiwanese monks. They are now a common site walking along the roads in their flowing yellow robes, their bald heads gleaming in the sun. China has come a lot closer to my rural home it seems, a lot closer than I could have dreamed just 10 or 15 years ago.

Some of the stories I heard from the local townspeople about the new Chinese interlopers brought a knowing smile to lips. Like when I was told that the first monks that arrived at the monestary decided to stay and endure the harsh local winter where temperatures routinely drop below -20 degrees. They had built a large fireplace in their monastery to battle the cold, but unfortunately, even though they are an intelligent bunch with lots of successful business leaders in their ranks, they didn’t know how to construct an airtight chimney.  But since they are Chinese and not knowing how to do something correctly has never stopped them from doing anything yet, they built it anyway. Halfway through the winter their poorly made flu caught fire and nearly destroyed their fledgling structure. So, for the rest of the winter, they simply went without heat! “How typically Chinese” I said.  “First they do something without knowing how to do it correctly, and when the fruits of their unskilled labour go up in flames they simply endure the consequences. In China, this sort of thing happens all the time…” I related stories of collapsing bridges in Chinese cities, faulty wiring & plumbing in the Shanghai flats I have rented, and of course, the poorly constructed chimney I had seen in the MoganShan lodge, to the stunned amusement of my fellow PEI’ers. (Where I am from, people take great pride in being able to do things for themselves, like plumbing, wiring, home construction, bricklaying and the like. Even my father who is a dentist thinks nothing of putting in a concrete floor or building a barn. This is just how we do things… Ourselves.)

Other times, I would get questioned as to why the Chinese living in local apartments and working at the fish plant do the things they do. “Why are they always squatting everywhere like monkeys?” I was asked on more than one occasion. “Well,” I’d respond, “that’s an easy one. In China most outdoor surfaces are covered in pollution and dust and therefore, should not be sat on. Crouching on your haunches will keep you pants clean.” Another common question was, “Why are they so dirty?” Which could be answered in a variety of ways… but I would only say, “Because they are Chinese. Soap is a luxury in China. The migrants arriving in Canada to do the work Canadians won’t do aren’t coming from the rich suburbs of cities like Beijing, they are coming from the countryside where life often resembles the middle ages more than it does the 21st century. Not having the necessary supplies to keep their homes spic and span or the necessary decades of public television ads brainwashing them to believe homes are not a dirty place, they can not help but have a little lower standard of cleanliness than the average Canadian.” Still, these people are working in food production… I wonder how often they spit and farmer honk snot as they cook up and package PEI lobster???


Behind the Wheel

Going out and about town with my father and on my own proved to be an interesting trial of patience. That first observation of obsessive road rules adherence confronted me every time I was a passenger or climbed behind the wheel myself. (As for climbing behind the wheel, I enjoyed driving my father’s Ford half ton 4×4 immensely. It is definitely the vehicle I want to have on Shanghai’s roads!) Everywhere I went, people were slow and cautious. The light would turn green and people would still sit there for a moment or two waiting… waiting for what exactly? Waiting to see if the light really had turned green and it wasn’t a malfunction I suppose… Where’s Chinese efficiency when you need it?

With my father in the driver’s seat we rolled up to a red light with just one or two cars in front waiting to go straight while we wanted to turn right. “Just drive around them on the shoulder.” I advised. “Why are you waiting?” Clearly the impatience of Chinese driving had rubbed off on me, even though I never drive in China. When I was behind the wheel, I did proceed to cut around offending cars waiting for the light, driving up on the edge of sidewalks as situations required. Parking was a similar manner. The endless searches for available spaces where parking was permitted. “Damn, I should just park on the sidewalk… or that patch of lawn over there…” I lamented, as I wasted time trying to obey the rules. Seat-belts were another issue. Having not worn one for 4 years, I found them extremely uncomfortable and unwarranted, especially the shoulder strap cutting into my neck.  “My, Canadians truly do love their safety and rules don’t they.” I thought in some form or other repeatedly while on the roads.However,  while on two feet and navigating intersections, I was very pleased that cars stopped, no one honked, and no one tried to run me down like they do in China… though it was a little off-putting to have drivers stop for me before I even entered the road… Worried they may just gun it as I passed in front of their bumpers, I was hesitant the first few times I crossed the street. “What is he waiting for?” they probably thought as I stayed put, dumbfounded by the honor of “right of way”.


In the Shop

While on foot and doing a bit of shopping (Buying books mostly. I bought over a dozen. Mostly ones banned in China. Hehe.), I was once again confronted by  Canadian politeness, constantly. While in a small cramped used book store scanning the floor to ceiling shelves for anything on China, I saw a woman in a nook looking through books. Thinking nothing of the situation in particular, I leaned in and looked past her at the titles on the shelves. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She said, “Do you want to get in here? I can get out of your way.” “No, that’s OK, just looking.” I countered in amazement. Why was she “sorry” I wondered? Sorry for me, sorry because she had harmed me in some grievous fashion by shopping for books, or sorry that she existed in this place and time when a stranger was wanting to exist there as well? Really I am not sure. I should have asked her.

With the book hunting out of the way (I didn’t find any China books I hadn’t read already and settled for a Bill Bryson book and an autobiography of Mateo Ricci.) I went to the till, paid, I said and received to the requisite number of thank you’s as money was exchanged and bag provided.  At this point, I couldn’t help but notice my father chatting away with the shop owner. (My father is an insatiable talker as most dentists are…). Here were two strangers who had never seen each other before, happily discussing boat building, pet rearing, and any number of other strangely specific topics… And not once did they talk about money. It may be just me, but an awful lot of conversations I happen to hear being yelled in public in Shanghai seem to be about money and how much something cost.

This scene would play out time and time again with my father even explaining to people that I have been living in China, what my job is in Shanghai, and any other number of things I considered personal information. And sometimes strangers would even attempt this with me. Waiting in line at a checkout or when ordering food in a restaurant, strangers would comment on the weather, my purchases, or any other thing they could think of.  Some would even ask me what part of “the States” I was from, which amused me. Why? Why were they so interested in little ol’ me? I didn’t know. All I could think of at the time was “They aren’t ‘connected’ to me, so why are they talking to me.” This kind of thing never happens to me in China. In China, if a stranger talks to me it is always along the lines of “Where are you from? Are you American? are you German? Oh Janada (Canada), that’s great!” Then, “Do you know Bethune?” Followed by questions about my marital status and how much money I make… But here I was in Canada and I didn’t recall having been put off by such common situations in the past, so maybe China had changed me more than I believed when I hopped on the plane?


The Queue

During the entire trip I became very aware of how different I viewed the most seemingly simple and routine human interactions. In many situations I had to check myself to be sure I was acting in socially correct ways (Normal “Canadian” ways that I had often derided the Chinese for not adhering to). For example: how much space to allow between yourself and the person in front of you whilst standing in a queue. In China, as I am  sure most of you know, leaving even 3 or 4 inches of space between yourself and the person in front of you seems to be an invitation to the less socially graceful, mostly old cultural revolutionary women, to elbow their way in front of you. Meanwhile the person directly at your rear has their paunch shoved into your back in an all too intimate manner! (Remember Bo Yang’s observations from the beginning of this article.) Unlike these brutes of incivility, being Canadian, I knew such behavior is not appreciated in the civilized world. But how much space should I be allowing?

My first experiment was not so well thought out. I simply lined up leaving about 6 inches of room, far more than is advisable in Shanghai. No one was behind me, but it seemed a perfectly acceptable amount of space for any queue conscious individual. But the startled, transforming to disgruntled, look the woman standing in front of me greeted me with told me otherwise. The next time I lined up I thought I’d try leaving about a half meter of room for the preceding person in the queue to maneuver. Surely this would be more than enough space for anyone. Not so. Once again I got a dirty look. “Just how much space do these bloody people need?!” I thought, feeling exasperated. As it turned out, quite a lot. After asking my cousin what he thought, “Arm’s length.” the answer, and doing some of my own experimentation, a meter or about 4 feet was the correct distance between people in a PEI queue. Canadians need a lot of space apparently, and luckily having the world’s second largest country with only 30 odd million people dispersed across it affords them enough to feel at ease. If not, they’d surely look like the most savage race on earth, what with all their “Get out of my space!” anger filled faces.



After a week or so I grew used to these new realities. I too enjoyed the abundance of personal space, the slower pace, and the peace and quiet PEI provided. I had to continually check myself to be sure I was following the rules and not emitting guttural sounds of agreement that China has caused me to grow accustomed to, but that became easier and easier. Canada was a nice place in all respects and Shanghai with its dirt, noise, and chaos was many worlds away. I did find the Canadians’ worries about air pollution and their Nazi-like strictness about smoking to be both amusing and often annoying however. The air there is of the finest quality the world has to offer, and cigarettes aren’t really such a bad thing are they? Especially when almost no one smokes anymore, which of course made me somewhat of an outsider, and at times, long for home… err, China.

The days passed quickly and too soon… my trip was over. The best part of this journey to my roots, other than seeing my folks whom I wish I could see more often, was the realization that Shanghai and China with all it’s things laowai can complain about, is really not that bad a place. There is a certain degree of freedom one has, especially as a foreigner in China, that cannot be expected nor likely found when one travels home. As for my parents, I’m doing my best to get them to visit China, though my stories about Chinese life have perhaps curbed their enthusiasm about the whole prospect. I was very happy to see the stars shinning at night again. Oh how I’d missed them. Living in shanghai, polluted with coal dust and light, the sighting of a single star is something to behold most nights… Star gazing, visiting, and becoming re-civilized complete, I, with some regret and longing for the little Canadian island where I spent my childhood, went to the comically tiny PEI airport to begin my journey back to the Middle Kingdom. I was both sad to go and at the same time relived to be going back to where everyday things, somehow… made more sense.

Arriving just after 3 in the morning, at about the same time as I had originally arrived in what seemed like months before, I was just in time to get in line before a bus load of Chinese tourists were dropped off. These rabble rousing middle aged folk had brought China with them just to give me a taste of what I was returning to. Everyone yelling, jostling for position, and crowding the ticket counter all at once. “God! Do they know where they are?” I mumbled to no one in particular, “This is Canada. Give each other some space!”

My childhood home on a starry night... I'll be back!
My childhood home on a starry night… I’ll be back!

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