My name is Nicole, or Nikki to my friends. But, every day for the last 15 months, my name has been 外国人 (Wàiguórén) — “Foreigner.”
In America, I was the oldest sister to three brothers. I was the only girl in my immediate family. I was the girl who would dance whenever and wherever decent music was playing. I was the chick at the bar all by her happy self, reading a book while drinking beer. I was the girl who cut off her hair because she was tired of combing it. And who locked her hair for the same reason. I was the girl who went pale at the thought of starting a conversation with a complete stranger (and for a rather dark-skinned African-American, that’s a feat).
But here in China, my identity has come down to one word. Wàiguórén. Foreigner. Outsider. One who does not belong.
It’s a little off-putting.
I’m now the one who gets stared at when having a conversation with someone. I’m now the one who draws gasps when she walks into a room. I’m the one who constantly hears “Oh, my god!” and “oh my Lady Gaga!” while walking down the street. I’m the one who can stop a conversation in its tracks just by walking by. (I mean, I’m kind of cute, but really?)
But I’m also the one who, every few weeks, hosts a family dinner.
I look up recipes I want to try (I love experimenting on people, hehehe). Go grocery shopping. Clean up (probably for the first time since the last family dinner). And cook up a huge amount of food. I invite a bunch of my fellow Wàiguórén, and we all sit around the living room with music playing in the background and eat and laugh and drink and talk. Overall, pretty typical dinner party.
For me, and I think for many of us, those family dinners are a safe space. A place where we can curse and gripe and complain, where we can listen to punk and R&B and garage, and rock, and metal, and old-school rap. Where we can eat some foods we miss at home. Where we can be who we were at home. Who we are inside.
Where, even if we’re from several different countries, we aren’t foreigners. We’re, for lack of a better word, us.
We share stories of how we’re fucking up at teaching. How we’ve gotten through to a kid who has no interest in learning English. How we want to leave ASAP. Why we stay anyway. And the ultimate question — how can we be better teachers?
Because, in the end, that’s who we are. We’re teachers. We love teaching. We love the English language. We love it when a kid runs up to us on the street and calls us by name. We love it when someone comes up to us on a street and tries to have a conversation — an actual conversation! — with us in English. Even if every other word is mispronounced and the grammar is atrocious, we don’t care. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re here in China.
We may be wàiguórén, For the entire time we’re here. But we’re also 老师. Lǎoshī. Teacher.
Hi, my name is Nicole Lǎoshī. I’m an English teacher in China. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. But it’s who I am. For now.