Chapter 80: The Foreign Foreigners

Bar street with a neon light-up "bar" sign
When you’re abroad, your brethren foreigners can sometimes be just as foreign to you as the locals, just as John and I discovered one night while dining on a bar street.

One Saturday in Shanghai, John and I eschewed our usual date-night standby — the Tianran Vegetarian restaurant — for a Mexican joint my coworker recommended. The place hovered over a bar street in Shanghai that I’d heard of — from heavy ads in all the foreigner mags in Shanghai — but never visited. I maybe had a beer or glass of wine once a month, and couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been in a bar. Still, in a country where avocados were more foreign than I was, I missed Mexican food desperately — desperate enough to go to a neighborhood I’d never gone to before.

With all of the bar ads for this street — and all of those “happy hour” promos — I expected the patrons and music to be overflowing as much as the alcohol. But instead, I could barely hear the music, and saw only a handful of patrons here and there lurking in the shadows, as if this was the Prohibition era and no one wanted to be caught. And even stranger, the restaurant, perched on the second floor, had the same lascivious glow of a red-light district brothel in Amsterdam. Was this really the Mexican food dinner my friend, a girl at that, had recommended?

Reluctantly, we wandered upstairs, relieved to discover that it still was, in fact, a Mexican restaurant — but it was as deserted as the bar street outside. “Should we even stay here?” I wondered aloud to John, who had the same puzzled look as I did. But stay we did. After all, we’d come all this way for a burrito — and if not here, then where?

John and I slipped into a booth by the window that overlooked the ghostly street below, and only noticed the other two patrons — a pair of thirtysomething European guys hunched over the bar nursing their beers — in passing.

But I didn’t just pass them by, because they looked at me and shouted across the way: “Are you from France?”

I should have known this was trouble. Why would anyone ask your nationality, just like that, after entering a restaurant? I felt a little nervous, uneasy even, to have strangers address me so suddenly. But I thought, maybe they mistook me for someone else? Maybe I should just tell them?

So I did. “No, I’m an American,” I said.

Why did I have to say American? I could have just said “no,” and left it there — and probably spent the rest of the evening lost in date night reverie, never giving the cheeky lads at the bar another thought. But I volunteered the extra information, and at my own peril.

“Oh, an American! I’m an American!” they taunted, in their louded stage whispers. “Those Americans, they think they rule the whole world, don’t they? They’re just war trash! An American, ha!”

And so it began, their drunken monologue about the evils of my country and people, for everyone — particularly me — to hear. To be sure, in the wake of the Iraq war, which had begun more than 6 months ago by that evening, it hit my ears hard.

Suddenly, I felt like I was back in high school again, with yet another bully facing me down — and yet another urge to get the hell out of there. I never wanted to punch or kick — with words or bodies; I always just wanted peace. But now here I was, in a foreign country, on a nearly deserted entertainment district, and the confrontation felt even more threatening than ever.

I sank into the corner of the booth and stared at John in an effort to forget the hooligans there. “Should we just go?” I asked in Chinese, guessing — correctly, as it turned out — that the two foreigners couldn’t even speak the language of this country.

John looked straight in my eyes, like a coach to a desperate player. “We cannot leave here. We cannot let them have the pleasure of that. We came here to eat, and we’re going to eat.”

His words washed over me like a cold shower, and washed away the urge to flee. I could stay. I could have my dinner. I could still have my date night, in spite of them. So I took a breath and decided to fix my gaze on John or the street, and nothing else, as the two of us lived in a virtual world built of our own conversation, and our own hopes — even as the hooligans droned on in the background.

“Americans are such arrogant assholes,” one laughed. “Those Americans!” And on, and on.

And we talked in Chinese, and sat, and finally ate our burritos. But we never left. Never.

In the end, the drunken hooligans walked away first, tumbling out the door — probably to another near-deserted place on that street for yet another round of beers, or even something more. As for me, for the first time in my life, I walked away with a little more courage.

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12 thoughts on “Chapter 80: The Foreign Foreigners

  • July 7, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Ugh, the worst kind of foreigners. The worst kind of people! Good for you for staying.

  • July 7, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Actually I believe they wanted to harrass you for being with someone of a different race, which is what they would have done back home in the UK, or even here in the US..Groups that advocate banning marriage between whites and non-whites such as the British National Party are popular among a very small but significant part of the population in the UK. Under the current political and racial climate, you will be harrassed or even attacked in place such as Arizona.

    Fortunately, you were in China..and hence no problem!

  • July 7, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Actually I have seen half drunk white women in Singapore harrass local women who are with white men!

  • July 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Urgh, sounds awful.

    George is making a few bold assumptions. They were probably just drunken idiots who got a bit keen when they found out you were American. If they were English, then I can only apologise for their stupidity.

    • July 9, 2010 at 7:14 pm

      @global gal, @George, @reloaded, @Andy, thanks so much for all of your kind comments!

      I have to agree with Andy that they probably just were some drunken morons. Not sure if they were English, but I appreciate the apology. 😉

  • July 10, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Yeah, there is a little prejudice regarding Americans from other Westerners. Don’t worry too much about it though. Most of those bullies are cowards anyways. It’s also good you had your other half with you.

    There are some places where if it’s mostly men that frequent them, it’s almost a cardinal rule to bring at least another person besides you, preferably a male. Not sure if China as a whole has them, but I know in some parts of Mexico City, you need two males with you.

    • July 10, 2010 at 5:04 pm

      Friend, thanks for the comment. Yeah, I was very very grateful I wasn’t there alone! It’s so true that, as a woman, sometimes you really do want another person with you. As much as I love going out there on my own, I did almost get sexually assaulted last years in China, when John wasn’t with me, so safety and security are big on my mind.

  • July 18, 2010 at 5:09 am

    Well, one thing that most Americans have to realise is that people don’t generally like them. Particularly true if the persons involved are from the Old World, or from some of the many countries which have been raped/invaded/enslaved/messed up by the American foreign policy and the arrogance of their Imperium.

    Sorry love about these “obnoxious hooligans”, but unfortunately the more you’ll travel the world and the more you’ll realise that the American dream has been built at the expense of many, many, many million people. Who eventually try to blast your skyscrapers with airplanes.

  • July 25, 2010 at 5:09 am

    Hi Jocelyn,

    This is one of those kinds of stories I hate to hear. As a fellow American who has been around the world (and is now living in China), this is exactly the sort of ridiculousness I despise the most. Kudos to you for staying put; I myself would likely have just walked away in fury, the way mom and dad always taught me to. On some days, I just don’t need to take it.

    I would challenge one of our readers’ assertions “that people don’t generally like” Americans. Most (normal) people actually have no trouble distinguishing between the citizens of a particular country, and the foreign policy of that particular country. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Ever.

    I had the experience of travelling throughout the Middle East in college (sometimes via hitch-hiking). I told everyone who asked that I was from America–to which I often got the enthusiastic response, “I love America!” Sometimes I got something more to the effect of, “Oh, America is ‘jahiliya’ [ignorant, in an Islamic sense]”. Never once did I get anyone openly insulting me as an individual (or for that matter, my country itself).

    The times I have gotten this response has inevitably been in Europe–certain nations of which, I hasten to add, spent the better part of last century upholding their own imperial ambitions at the expense of many, many, many millions in Africa, the Middle East, India, South East Asia, and even China.

    Those you met that fateful night most likely came from industrialized countries and therefore ought not to have borne any resentment. And taking it out on a respectable young lady like yourself! Unconscionable to say the least. And yet you and your husband turned it into something very empowering, and I’m glad. I will continue to read your blog, by the way; keep up the good work!

    • August 3, 2010 at 12:43 am

      Yanzi, thanks for the comment, and your understanding. Like yourself, I’ve had relatively positive experiences traveling through most countries, even Indonesia (also Muslim) — it’s encouraging when people can see you as distinct from your country’s foreign policy failures.


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