Oberlin students are notorious for their awkwardness. Take any social gathering and you'll find it nearly impossible to escape a conversation with someone who has either been home-schooled for too long or has never once communicated with a member of the opposite sex. I, too, am spared no exception from this judgment. No doubt we Oberlin folk flocked to the same place because somewhere in our collective subconscious we knew we'd find people who would accept us—criminally awkward and all. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would actually discover a place more socially awkward than even Oberlin. That place, dear readers, is Taigu, China.
As foreigners, we're used to being daily spectacles. The unfortunate downside, though, is that most of the attention we get is unwanted—leaving us powerless to stop it without coming off as jerks. Take Kevin, who creepily watched us play Frisbee all last year without ever saying a word—convincing each of us that he was the other's student (he wasn't). Or Hawk, who, as her name suggests, preys on foreigners like a vulturous animal—sporting beady eyes and a pointy beak of a nose to boot. At the entrance to the main teaching building, she once famously cackled, “I love you, teacher!” before latching herself into Alexandra's side like a lesion. Or Cassidy, an older Taigu native, who has a bizarre fascination with Oberlin Shansi and a hard time understanding when he's overstayed his welcome.
We first met "Hawk" (right) at this year's annual Halloween party. Under a clever disguise of silly string and colored markers, she had Alexandra convinced that she was one of her English majors (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).
There are also a handful of non-students who insist on coming to my classes. Though most are polite and sit quietly in the back, I still get the usual slew of loudmouths and chafes. One has apparently studied abroad in New Orleans and uses every opportunity to stress how close he came to actually seeing New York. Another calls himself “Bank,” and as one of the student leaders of the “English Enthusiasts” club on campus, he is one of the biggest infractors on my personal well-being. When pressed about his English name, he had this to say: “Because there is money inside.” So much for subtlety.
Still, it's hard to distinguish between actual curiosity and excitement, psychological instability, and the downright opportunistic. On Halloween Day, a rowdy group of four or five students stopped by my house—surely attracted by the pumpkins that lined our porch—and asked me to teach them about American holidays. A guy we've nicknamed “Rando” first visited the house last week, asking for nothing more than genuine friendship. Were we too jaded to pick them out from the dozens of other requests we've received, or were they just more convincing than the rest? Chinese people would never do these things to each other, so why does it feel like the rules are different for us?
The irony of it all is that they're not alone. The only difference between them and the thousands of other students on campus is that they actually have the guts to approach us. Every student wishes they could talk with foreigners, but only a select few have the compunction to risk getting shot down. And the sad truth is that we're all in this together. We've become a magnet for freaks, weirdos, misfits, geeks, and sociopaths perhaps because they feel like we can empathize with them—that we are all performing animals in this crazy zoo of a world. Furthermore, it's hard for us to make deep connections with Chinese friends too, probably because they're thinking the same things about us. Still, it's not going to stop me from readying myself before I open my front door.