Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ma Lei's American adventure begins

An image of a yangguizi — foreign devil
Greetings from Tokyo!

I suppose I can add another country to my list of places I've set foot, though a stop at the airport doesn't really constitute much of a visit. It's Ma Lei's first time outside China, though, so setting foot even on the kind of universal no-man's-land which is the International Terminal of any major airport has a little more significance.

Ma Lei has been extremely nervous about every part of this trip, the planning for which began six weeks ago, in early November. Sure, she's excited about it, but she's also frightened, and nervous, and anxious about any of the myriad things that can go wrong when traveling. China has an especially long history of seeing itself as the only place where civilized people exist, where civilized people can be safe, and where anyone can be trusted. The outside world has only in the past 100 years or so (and inconsistently even then) been seen as anything other than tribute payments for China's emperor and tales of giant, hairy, foul-smelling, beak-nosed monsters known as yangguizi — foreign devils.

Of course, Ma Lei doesn't see me, my family, or Americans in general as devils, but we are foreign in the extreme, and thus venturing out into a world surrounded by us, created by us, operating by our rules and in our language, was bound to be anxiety-ridden. I don't think I would understand her feelings nearly as well — since Americans after all are blithely confident that our rules will apply anywhere in the world — except that my adventure in Shanhaiguan two months after I'd arrived in China proved very dramatically that this is not the case.

The fears were varied, and most passed quickly, as the momentary stand-in for a generalized anxiety is wont to do. Her visa would be denied. She would be turned away by the Customs official at the border. She would get sick in America. My family would hate her. She wouldn't be able to communicate with her family. She would starve to death because the food would be terrible. (This last one persisted, spurred by reports from not-too-adventurous Chinese people who swore that all food in America is terrible.) The ticket agent in Dalian as we checked in for our first connecting flight, to Tokyo, added yet another one by asking if Ma Lei had a Japanese visa.

The first anxiety attack I was able to sign on to came toward the end of that first flight, when there was a weather delay that forced us into a circling queue north of a nasty storm in Tokyo. At one point, the pilot told us that in cas
e they couldn't get clearance to land within 20 minutes, they were going to have to put in at Tokyo's other airport, which would have done who-knows-what for our ability to get to Chicago. 

About two minutes later we got our clearance, and as I write this we're sitting at the departure gate. 

As soon as we landed, we had an instant role reversal: for the first time I was Ma Lei's translator and shepherd, rather than the other way around.

It's always such a shock when one gets out of China. The clothes are so much better (and more varied), the hair colors and styles are so different, the girls dress like adult (and sexy) women, not like schoolgirls clinging to childhood. And on the flip side, no one pays any attention to me.

Another thing — public bathrooms with toilets. and PAPER! and SOAP!!! And Western-style toilets, rather than a hole in the floor that you squat over.

Then there's that strange little button on the side of the toilet, with a graphic of a pair of buttocks and a spray of water, which does something too bizarre for words.

This was all a double shock for Ma Lei, who comes from a country in which everything, and everyone, is squeezed by design into the same identical mold. For a less-independent person, I can imagine it would be frightening in the extreme. Ma Lei, though, has the curiosity of someone with utter confidence in herself, her own resourcefulness, and my trustworthiness to take care of her.

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