Chinese Crossovers

One of the ways to get to Mainland China from Hong Kong is by bus.

When you exit Hong Kong and pass through customs at the border bus depot, you file into the line marked “Visitors”. A short bus ride later, when you cross over into China through Shenzhen, you file into the line marked “Foreigners”.

Two places, minutes apart, yet in one your label is a warm word with an inviting connotation, and in another your label is a cold, distancing word if there ever was one.

I am not complaining, far from it. As a brother of undeniably darker complexion, many years resident in China, has said to me,

“You probably get better treatment because your complexion is lighter.”

True, it is; that particular shade of light brown with and undercurrent of red, leading enough of us habeshas to be often confused for East Indians.

Be that as it may, they still have only one word for it here – black.

Student: “Why are you so black?”

Me (teacher): “Why are you so yellow?”

When, of course, in reality, it goes both ways. There are just as many shades of yellow as there are of black. (Or white, for that matter.) Still, there’s no sense in trying to enforce the distinction between “black” and “habesha” here. We’ll just call it black.

Moreover, black, white, or what not (black devil, white devil, and so forth) you’re basically the same one thing in China – foreigner. A title applied to you from the passport control signage of any entry point into the vast kingdom at which you may find yourself. A grand assumption, to be sure, for someone who has only entered through two – Shenzhen and Beijing – but probably still a safe one to make.

The English tapers off after Shenzhen. Hong Kong, by comparison, is a paradise of English. Shall one dare to praise colonialism? Tempting, but not necessary. Addis is equally so, and any Ethiopian will be quick to point out the hitherto non-colonized status of her country – our main selling point. You needn’t be, nor have been, colonized to appreciate the value of making life available in English for those who need or desire it.

The farther north you go from Hong Kong, the scarcer the complementary English signage becomes. Until, by the time you hit Shenzhen, it’s reduced to a few token, throwaway words squished beneath, beside, or in the general vicinity of the admittedly beautiful works of art that are the Chinese characters, for characters they definitely are. Words such as “passport”. An essential one, I guess, hence its’ exemption from elimination.

Yet, into this sea of Chinese, we attempt to introduce, introduce, and re-introduce English and hope it takes hold. What are the odds? It seems I have a better chance of learning Chinese than the other way around. Absorb it as I do through my very pores, every waking moment of every day. In my sleep too, I don’t doubt. Someday, my subconscious brain will interpret the neighbor lady’s daylong hollers and her nightly bickering with her equally slurry-tongued husband that are my lullabies. I will know what the fuss is about across the wall. The child’s petrified screams, on the other hand, need no interpretation. That is universal. She seems to have a far worse fate than my overly happy, well-fed, well-dressed students – even when they are confused out of their precious little minds about the difference between “next to” and “across from”. One day, it did occur to me that the situation might be reversed. It could be she, the child, terrorizing the parents over there. Lord knows it can happen. I, for my part, am more than happy to send my students home, any and every day. Across the hall, and out the door.

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