A girl of about two and half, bundled in a puffy pink coat and perched on her mother’s lap, leaned over and puked a bunch of white froth onto the fake marble floor outside of radiology room number three. Her father, in anticipation, went to grab a small waste basket from the corner. As he picked it up, a small ring of vomit marked its former location. Her mother flicked some stray bits off of the girl’s sleeve.
The doctor that stood in front of us was frozen with momentary disgust. It was not the act of vomiting itself, which had only caused him to glance peripherally, but rather the splat when the flecks from the girl’s sleeve hit the floor that seemed to offend him, and warranted the full turn of his head.
After a brief pause, the doctor continued his previous line of questioning. I did not understand a lot of it because I wasn’t actively listening, but would occasionally pick up a word or two from the answers: “mótuō chē” — motorcycle; “xiōngbù” — chest; “dùzi tòng” — stomach pains. And then I heard the question that I knew was inevitably coming.
—Who is the lǎowài? Your friend?
—No, he is the person who hit me, the pedestrian said.
—Ahh, the doctor chuckled. I couldn’t make out what he said next, but I assumed that it meant something like ‘of course he did.’
Lǎowài is a word that ex-pats who speak even a little Mandarin generally contend is discriminatory, whereas most Chinese will insist that it is neutral. Granted, there are more offensive terms that are rarely heard nowadays, but there are also less loaded ones, and it still manages to get under the skin of foreigners living in China. Usually people will call you lǎowài while staring directly at you and smiling with amusement and the obvious expectation that you do not understand. However, even after some indication of comprehension has been given, the staring and discussing it as if it does not exist persist. “That lǎowài understands Chinese!” they hoot and point and clap and the trained monkey smiles self-consciously. Maybe years ago this seemed to be an acceptable improvement, but now it simply wants to be recognized as a person rather than some walking, strange-talking sideshow.
The doctor continued casually joking with the pedestrian for a minute before finally escorting him in to get his unnecessary x-ray, the little girl still sat in her mother’s lap in her bulging pink coat puking, and I sat watching the accident’s unrelenting replay.
I was driving to work. The street, slightly wider than a two-lane road, has a little extra space for motorcycle traffic and for people to move over when oncoming vehicles are passing one another. There is also a bike lane on each side of the street. It is separated from the main road by long ovular curbs that are filled with trees, triangular neon flags affixed to bamboo posts, and small privet hedgerows.
One of China’s ubiquitous beigish-silver minivans is crawling along to the left of the lane in front of me. As I come up behind him on my motorcycle, he begins to drift to the right. Why didn’t you go around him on the left? Because there was a bus passing a stopped black sedan in the oncoming lane, remember? Yes, yes, and so I too slide over to the right. He is preventing my ability to pass him, but there is a large gap in the bike lane divider ahead and I calculate that if I speed up a bit I can use the extra space that it will provide to weave around him just as he is passing it. So I accelerate to about 60 kilometers an hour and I lean to the right and begin to make my way around him. But as I am shifting my weight back to the left he steps on the accelerator and turns harder and I brace myself because — fuck! — the left side of my handlebars and the clutch lever thump and scrape off the side of the van and my elbow smacks into his mirror before I bounce off toward the once-leisurely bike lane traffic. And a parked yellow hatchback gleams beckoningly through the hopelessly slowing electric bikes and motorbikes and the wrinkled faces are now ripped wide-open and made young again by the sudden wave of helplessness and adrenaline. And did I look like that too? No, my jaw is clamped tightly and my eyes are fixed as instinct takes control and my right foot shoots onto the brake pedal and sends the back tire fish-tailing and squealing and my other foot hammers into the pavement. Wait, had I put my other foot down? Yes, yes I must have. My left foot digs into the pavement in an effort to regain control and send the bike further left before it jumps back onto the foot-peg. And it works, but not quite well enough and the corner of my right foot is pinched between the curb and the break pedal but I don’t feel it and my knees remain clenched around the gas tank as the rear tire hits the curb and sends the bike back to the right and ricocheting against the curb. The pedestrian, who had been crossing the road and is clad entirely in black, is halted about fifteen meters in directly front of me.
I start to scream “look out,” but as it is coming out I realize that it will mean nothing to him so it emerges as “Loooouugggaaaaaaahhhwww!” And all during this wild alarm my head is jerking madly to the left and signaling him away from the curb but he is just standing, transfixedly agape with fear and indecision, curiosity. But I cannot really blame him, because the sight of a lǎowài is curious enough, but one who has a beard and long brown hair and — Jesus! — He is driving a motorcycle and just hit a car and is heading straight for you and seems to be having an epileptic seizure of some sort. At the last instant the pedestrian slides sideways, swift and straight-legged and looking like some frightened Chinese matador, and I turn my bike hard into the curb and away from him but the corner of the handgrip catches him in the stomach. And I’m looking straight at a tree and thinking ‘of course today is the one day I didn’t wear my helmet’ and I shoot into the air and somehow miss the tree and a flash of fluorescent pink flies by as I am being flung into the bushes.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
—Hello? Patrick? It’s Miss Zhuang. Are you still at the hospital?
—Yes, I’m in…
—We are in the front of the building. Where are you?
—I am in the radiology dep…ahhh…the place where people get x-rays.
—What? Where is that?
—I am coming out front. I’ll see you in a second.
—OK, we’ll find you.
—No. Wait. Ughh. She hung up.
They weren’t at the front, but fine. She said that she would find me. I headed back to the radiology department. While sitting back down, she and two other teachers from my school passed by in the hallway coming from the back of the hospital. I had seen the other teachers five days a week for the past two months but had never talked to them and had no idea what their names were. I called over to Miss Zhuang. She came over and asked me what happened, but I only spoke a few words before she asked the pedestrian’s older brother, who had did not see the accident and was seated next to me waiting, for his story.
Afterwards I had shook myself up to see the pedestrian on the ground, and the van parked in the middle of the road with the asshole driver getting out. I limped hurriedly over to the guy on the pavement asking him if he was okay, but he only looked away and grabbed his stomach. The driver hovered over him and began talking with the pedestrian while they occasionally glanced up at me with disapproval. I consciously refused to say “I’m sorry,” because in the States it is considered an admission of fault, and I didn’t know the rules about this in China. The people from the bike lane kept going, but others stopped to watch, and then this old bastard came over. He was the one who introduced the disgruntled refrain, “Mótuō chē kāi dé tài kuài” — “Motorcycle was driving too fast.” Because of the parked van everyone going in both directions slowed and gaped at me. There was no chance of me not taking the blame for this, but screw it, I might as well let the asshole know that I think he caused it.
So I told him that he hit me, which he claimed impossible because the side of his car was scratched. Of course, you definitely cannot hit someone while accelerating rapidly from a virtual stop and turning across half of the road with no blinker. Motorcycle was driving too fast, he squawked. I continued my protests, simple sentence fragments in broken Chinese leading into hand and sound effect driven explanations, for a minute before surrendering quietly to the inevitable. The old man and the driver shook their heads and continued complaining to each other. I called Miss Zhuang to tell her that I would be missing at least one class, and saw that there was some blood on the ground. I looked up to see my sleeve dripping a little and realized that my right elbow had been cut open by one of the bamboo flag poles. The blood had seeped through my sweater and streamed down my forearm and was dripping from the tip of my pinky.
—Motorcycle was driving too fast, I heard the pedestrian’s older brother say to Miss Zhuang.
I had been going 60 on a street where the average car goes 50. The asshole hadn’t seen me because he had been crawling along gawking and uncertain about whether to turn or not. Miss Zhuang and the brother kept talking while I did calculations on my phone. I was only going about 35 by the time I hit him, which is… 21.752641 Mph. Let’s see, 3600 seconds in an hour times 15 meters is 54000 divided by 35000 meters per hour is 1.5428571 seconds of reaction time from when I first hit the curb. But I wasn’t going the same speed the whole time, so to be conservative I’ll say that he had about a solid second to get out of the way.
The pedestrian came out of the x-ray room to the profuse apologies of Miss Zhuang and the other teachers. “I am really sorry,” they said in unison, followed by successive phrases to demonstrate their embarrassment; as if their dog had gotten loose and caused some trouble around the neighborhood. I said nothing, just as I had after my attempt to blame the van’s driver had been immediately refuted.
Once the pedestrian had regained his feet, he had called his brother. The old man and the driver had continued grumbling off to the side. They both spoke sloppy Mandarin, heavy with the Guilin dialect. Occasionally they approached me before launching into thirty second tirades. After each one concluded I reiterated that I only speak a little Chinese, at which point he would launch into another nonsensical rant. The pedestrian’s older brother and friend showed up, which helped a lot because they were rational enough to speak slowly and in simple, broken phrases. I had to go to the hospital. I nodded that I understood. I would go with the pedestrian and the brother. Nod. He saw the blood on my arm. I should see a doctor too. No. Did I have big money? No. I was ushered to a nearby ATM before the pedestrian, his older brother, and I took a cab to the hospital. The friend said that he would wait with my motorcycle and the driver. The van remained unmoved from the middle of the road, which I realized was a sign that the police had been notified and an accident report would be filed. Awesome. I’m going to lose my month-old bike and pay for god-knows-what at the hospital. I knew that the pedestrian had probably just gotten the wind knocked out of him, and I dejectedly understood the motorcycle being confiscated. I didn’t care as long as I never had to pay a cent to the Asshole.
Sure enough, the police showed up to the hospital while the pedestrian was getting an ultrasound. I called the foreign teacher placement agency who had hired me, and my boss, Owen, translated the consequences. My bike would be taken, I should pay 1000 kuài to the hospital, and there would be an investigation. He merrily told me that the investigation would most likely never happen, however. He would call Miss Zhuang and tell her to come to the hospital. Next week she could go to the police station and get my bike back. She would just have to tell them that I was a volunteer foreign teacher at their school, and that it was her motorcycle, which I had borrowed it for the day. Also, I should have her say that after the accident I left town without telling them, and she didn’t know where I went. Make sure that she said I was volunteer teacher and don’t drive so fast! I hung up, signed a form, was given one of the officers’ cards and they left while the old people lingering in front of the hospital stared at me and laughed.
We all slowly walked to the get the x-ray reviewed. It showed that nothing was wrong, as had the results of the ultrasound. The pedestrian held his stomach and complained to the doctor, who wrote him a prescription. The piece of paper was briefly looked at and then given to me. I took it to the front counter and paid for it, then went to the adjacent window and picked up the two identical bottles that it indicated, which I assumed to be something like Tylenol with codeine. Miss Zhuang grabbed them and handed them to the pedestrian’s brother. She expressed further sentiments of apology and embarrassment. The pedestrian said something to her.
—He says the doctor told him to have a rest. He missed work today and will have to not working for maybe a few days. He says can you give him 200 kuài?
I gave him 300 instead, since I had only spent about 400 on his medical bills after not following Owen’s advice and simply giving the hospital 1000. Finally, I apologized to him, while biting down on the desire to repeat that it was the van’s driver’s fault. He told me that I should see a doctor, I refused, and he and his older brother left the hospital.
—OK, Miss Zhuang said, you can go home and have a rest for the weekend.
—Thanks for the help.
—You need to not drive so fast.
—I wasn’t going that fast. And it was the other guy’s fault.
—OK. Still you need to be more careful. Your parents aren’t in China. You need to be more careful. No one is here to watch you. Talk to your boss and he can help you to get back your motorcycle. See you on Monday.
* * *
That night I went to play some pool with my roommate, David. David Whose-last-name-I-never-knew was tall and lanky, with a lot of tattoos and gauged earlobes, had been here for two years and spoke close-to-fluent Chinese. He was also an English teacher, also had a motorcycle, and was also recently in an accident. When he was eight years old, he had been given the choice of keeping his bed in his room, or getting a pool table. Naturally, he chose the pool table and slept on a cot for the next few years until one of his older brothers left for college. So he beat me handily in three straight games while I told him about the accident. The version he was given was frequently punctuated by expletives, as I was still rather pissed about it and had been drinking. However, my anger was eventually exhausted.
—Of course you were instantly blamed.
—I hate that bullshit about whoever hits the other person is to always to blame.
—Yeah. But it bizarrely makes sense here.
—Well, with how erratically they drive and how many people there are and their light system, if whoever gets there first didn’t have the right of way traffic would be even worse. It forces you to be prepared for any nonsense other drivers might pull.
—Maybe, but you know you would have been blamed anyways because you’re a lǎowài.
—Yeah, probably, but what are you going to do. The part that was the most annoying to me was the driver and his damn tirades. I would tell him that I only spoke a little Chinese, and then he would launch into these rants, which made no sense to me. It’s like they can’t comprehend that someone can only know a little Mandarin. They think you know nothing or everything.
—That’s funny, because I always get the opposite.
—I’ll say something perfectly, and even talk to them for a minute, and then they ask, ‘Can you speak Chinese?’ What the hell have we just been using to communicate! And then they always ask, ‘Just a little, though, right?’ even though the conversation we’ve been having is way beyond ‘just a little.’ They can’t seem to comprehend that a lǎowài can speak more than maybe some basic phrases.
—Yeah, I laughed, I have gotten that one a few times, too, but since I always say that ‘I only speak a little,’ I haven’t run into the second part yet.
As if hearing his cue, the guy from the table next to us came over. I had been watching him play and he was barely mediocre, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a billiards glove along with half of the other crappy players in the pool hall.
—You want…with me…play? he asked David in broken English coupled with a pool-shooting pantomime.
—Sorry, I don’t want to, he answered in Chinese.
—After this game can we play?
—I am playing with my friend.
—Can you speak Chinese?
—We are speaking Chinese now, aren’t we? he answered, looking at me and shaking his head.
—You can speak a little?
He was frustrated by the exchange and missed an easy shot. I laughed.
* * *
The following Monday I returned to school by bus. Getting there took more than twice as long. I squished by Miss Zhuang’s chair without her saying hello, and sat down in my desk, which was jammed into the back corner of the English teacher’s office. There was less than a half a foot of space for my chair to be slid backwards. I took out my computer and played solitaire for the ten minutes until class started.
—Did Owen help you in getting your motorcycle back? Miss Zhuang asked as I was sliding past her and out of the office.
—No, I’ll tell you about it later, I have to get to class.
Class went the same as it generally does. The fifty students talked loudly in Chinese, and I screamed for them to shut up when prompted by annoyance or the need to say something important. About five of the fifty paid any real attention. Others randomly shouted out “tīng bù dǒng,” which literally means “I listen, but don’t understand.” However, they didn’t listen while I re-explained simply and slowly, with a translation, and then gave examples. The rest of the day’s classes went about the same, and in between them I slouched in the back of the office with its barred windows and the kids peeping in and looking at me. Some shouted hello and I tiredly replied. The second graders ran away laughing and screaming when I looked at them. Miss Zhuang ignored me for the rest of the day and left without saying goodbye. I put on my headphones and headed home on the bus.
It wasn’t until Thursday that Miss Zhuang asked me about the motorcycle again.
—No, I did not get the motorcycle back.
—Ah, well, Owen kind of said that you should help me with it.
—Oh, she laughed. And that was the end of that conversation.
It was clear that she did not want to help me out. It was an inconvenience, and I understood this. Really it should have been one of the other English teacher’s problems. Miss Lu, or Lucy, the tall one who spoke to the students with a shrill voice and crazy eyes and rhetorical questioning squawks, she was the one who was my Foreign Affairs Officer. But she was also the one who seemed to hold a visible dislike for me and who never acknowledged my presence. She was being paid a little extra each month for the added trouble.
I was drained during the rest of the week’s classes. At home every night I retreated to my bedroom to smoke countless cigarettes and watch movies on the internet after a brief commiseration session with David. Most days I took the bus, although occasionally when I was running late I would be forced to get a motorcycle taxi or a cab. They invariably claimed that my school did not exist.
—I can tell you how to get there.
—There is no Guilin Primary School
—No, it’s not Guilin. It’s Guiling.
—There is no Guilin Primary School.
—I have been teaching there for two months.
—Do you mean Sunny Primary School?
—No, that is the other way. My friend is a teacher at that school.
—Why don’t I know this school?
—That’s my question.
At first I thought that this was due to poorly spoken Chinese on my part. However, I have since tried writing place names down and even once used a map. None of these things worked and I have seen locals have the same problem. Taxis in China simply don’t know where anything is.
* * *
That Sunday was Halloween. David and I went out without costumes. We met up with the rest of the Guilin ex-pat crowd, who David knew and I was acquainted with but we both avoided. They were in the center of the city’s main walking street, fully costumed and posing for pictures in the midst of a swarm of people. We sat off to the side outside of a bar where I bought a round because David was refusing to buy drinks that night. It was not that he didn’t want to drink, or had no money. Rather the hope was that various Chinese people at the bar would buy us drinks. A few cute college students took pictures with us, one of whom recognized David from a picture of her friend’s, but there were no drink offers.
After finishing the round we migrated to another bar. Most of the other foreigners were there as well. They were scattered at various tables drinking for free, but we went to the bar where I bought another round. A Chinese girl in a pink wig and a skimpy nurse costume got up on a table-stage and sang a song, and the other foreigners all got up and danced around her. The people in the bar huddled around smiling and laughing and all the time snapping pictures. And I laughed at them and felt embarrassed and went home after one more beer because I wasn’t in the mood and always felt stupid putting on the show in order to drink for free anyways.
* * *
Monday I was tired, but Tuesday’s classes went a little better. The students were the same, and there were probably a few of the usual fights and some kids bursting out in tears, but I busted in on the fights with mocking kung fu moves and tried to get the criers to put their heads down. Twice I was mobbed by half a class jumping on me and tugging my arms and hugging me because they all wanted to draw at the board next. And after work I smiled and took the bus to the traffic police station and everyone smiled and stared and some said hello! hello! hello! And it was my name and I smiled and waved and sometimes said hello back.
Tuesday night I was told to come back anytime tomorrow. Wednesday at noon the police station was closed. I came back on Wednesday night.
—Wait a moment, one of the officers said, indicating that they had to call someone.
—Wait a moment, one of the other officers said.
A man who was also waiting in the station crept up behind me and read the report form that I was given during the first visit. Miss Zhuang had filled it out in between classes that morning while poorly concealing her annoyance.
—Wait a moment, the waiting man told me.
Was he an out-of-uniform cop or just some guy?
Slowly the other people left until there was only one officer there with me.
—Can you wait a moment there? he asked, gesturing to the outer hallway.
Five minutes later he too left and locked up.
—Wait a moment, he told me again as he walked away.
I waited for an hour as a precautionary measure, although I knew that no one was coming.
* * *
Thursday morning I woke up early and determined and headed to the police station. After about a half hour of standing around I was given a ticket. I should go to the place written on the piece of paper with another teacher from my school and could get my motorcycle back. In my head on the bus I was leaping and singing the ‘I’ve got a golden ticket’ song and feeling like Grandpa Joe getting out of bed for the first time in years.
Before class I asked Miss Zhuang if she could please type the name of the place into Google maps. It came up and I wrote down the address on a slip of paper but she called her husband in anyways and translated his directions. Then, even though she had been to this very place three weeks ago to get back her electric bike, she called her father and asked him about it, too. And I laughed about the “your parent’s aren’t here” comment because suddenly it didn’t seem so patronizing.
After work I took a cab that didn’t know how to get there. I told him to stop when I knew we were close enough. He said we weren’t in the right place and called a friend for directions. The friend didn’t know where the place was. He then asked a few people on the street. None of them knew were the place was despite the fact that we were no more than 500 meters away from it.
I got out and walked around asking people until I got three different people to tell me the same thing (in between a handful of others with widely varying directions). The impound was set back amongst the overgrown grass, trees, dirt roads, and scattered brick buildings and homes of power plant number five. I walked in through the fence past a guard and a pack of wild dogs and gave someone who held out his hand my ticket. He said that it would be 175 to get it back, I paid him, and we found my bike among the hundreds of others. He told me that I would have to walk it out. I had heard from several people that I should expect maybe my oil, but definitely my gas and a few parts to have been stolen, so assumed that this was why I was walking out.
—Good to go, the guard laughed as I pushed my motorcycle out past him.
The bike was looked over. The break pedal was snapped off and dangling from when I hit the curb, but everything else seemed to be alright. I shook it and there was still gas, but it wouldn’t start. I walked it out to a mechanic shed conveniently placed just outside of the power plant/impound. It started miraculously for him on the first try and he welded the break pedal back on without any gloves or eye-protection and he twisted and knocked a few other things into place as a pack of chickens pecked around outside the shed. 25 kuài. It cost me barely 30 USD to get the bike back from the police and fixed and I still didn’t have a license.
I drove around the city for a while, smiling and laughing and feeling the dust in my eyes and all of the frustration and hellos and constant gawking and my status as a half-fledged teacher but full-time window dressing at school, all of it was ridiculously beautiful. And I crossed back over the Jingping Bridge on my motorcycle with the salmonpink sun setting behind the insane karst peaks that rose out of the city, and I was on my way to my friend Ruby’s house where I get vast amounts of incredible food stuffed into me and am offered a massage afterwards and then she tries to pay me for helping her with English for an hour, and, oh, China, I love being your lǎowài.