In Mandarin, the polite way to refer to a foreigner is wai guo ren (外國人), literally ‘outside country person’. There is another way too, less polite but not exactly an insult – laowai (老外). The closest way I think I can explain this is it’s a lot like the Spanish ‘gringo’, but used for anyone clearly ethnically different to the Chinese, be they black or white. A laowai is just different, and does things the wrong way. Laowai is the word that defines you as not belonging, whether it is meant negatively, or in jest.
China has a colour palette. I found my green, red, blue and yellow pencils wearing away. It’s a country that is always looking to impress and overwhelm its laowais. Night lights everything in neon, the people are an endless sea, and rich or poor look dressed to the nines, even the natural landscape is ostentatious. It’s an escalating game of dares. Once you’ve created an army from clay how can someone beat you? They can carve Buddha from the cliff and calm the river. If I eat chicken feet, you have to eat scorpion.
Whenever I drew, I had people crowding round me to watch. This doesn’t happen at home and it took a while to get used to. Sometimes at home people glance over your shoulder, but there is nowhere like China for unasbashed interest. I liked to think maybe they were looking to see what an outsider saw when they looked at their world. Theres something about drawing that gives a little power to the thing being drawn. Drawing the animals at the Panda Sanctuary seemed to slow people down, let them see that the animals were little karmic beings (not souls, we are in a Buddhist country) just like them, deserving of the respect a drawing affords. (Throwing rocks at captive animals is not a cultural problem, but a human one. The sad truth about people is when there are so many of us, we are selfish and leave so much destruction in our wake. )
I spent some time in an international shaolin school, very east-meets-west and only a little bit Kill Bill. I’m no martial artist but I learned a lot there. Being foreign once in a while is good for us, I think. Your ways are not the only ways or the right ways because they are what you have always done, and really the only right way is to learn about one another.
I’m working on collating all my drawings and thoughts into a little book, in China’s palette but as seen by someone who doesn’t belong and doesn’t understand it all. I’m going to call it Laowai.
(If you are a martial artist/want to be one: kungfuschoolchina.com . I’ve never met a more fiercely passionate and generous teacher than Sifi Shi Xinglong.)