Tag Archives: laowai adventures

Not Falling but Flying

18 Jan

There’s a great piece up over at Ta-Nehisi’s place about his thoughts on international travel. I’ve been enjoying his posts on learning another language over the past year or so, so I’m stoked that he’s actually going to Europe. (Euro Horde meetup, y/y?) International travel is a weird thing: in most cases you end up going to a place where you don’t understand the local language.  There’s a particular terror and frustration reserved for these communication breakdowns.

I was sixteen when I went to Taiwan for a year as an exchange student. I had about five months of intermittent Chinese lessons. I had been there previously with my family, but going on a week long business trip with your dad and going to high school where you are one of two white kids in a school of a thousand girls are two completely different things. I’ve come a long way since then, but I still remember the sheer panic and embarrassment that came with standing in front of the whole school and having to give a short hello speech in Chinese.

I’m practically an expat at this point. Last year was a banner year for passport stamps (most of which can be blamed on Hong Kong’s egregious overstamping whenever you pass through border control) and I went to half a dozen countries in 2012. Incomprehension is the default and the only way to deal is to move forward. My advice to TNC? Take a couple deep breaths, smile, and bluster on through. You’ll be fine, dude.

Hualien, Taiwan

The view from my window in Hualien, Taiwan 2006.


Chengdu’s Next Top Model

2 Nov

I am not one for elaborate make-up routines. My idea of “done up” includes a little eyeshadow, a little eyeliner, some mascara, maybe lip gloss. I do not spend a lot of time on this. I am not the most fashionable lady out there and will be the first to admit it.

I was a model on Friday. I’ll wait for a little while, so everyone can stop cackling madly.

It started about two weeks ago, when I left the dorms. See, most students know where all the foreigners are located on campus – it’s a fairly central location and we kind of stick out. Plus, our building is gated and there is almost always someone on duty walking around. Language corners are held outside the gates and sometimes you get job offers from slightly shady people looking for a foreigner who wants to make a quick buck.

I was on my way to dinner when a trio of well-dressed Chinese girls came up to me. After one of them, clearly the designated English speaker, started talking in fits and starts, I figured this was going to be another “please teach us English and we will help improve your Chinese” deals. I get them a lot. It’s not really intriguing to me at this point in the game. But no. She gestured at the most fabulous of the three and said that she was a senior at the local beauty school and her final was in two weeks and she needed a model and was I interested? Most of this was actually in Chinese, as I had interrupted as soon as communications had broken down and informed them that I wasn’t entirely an idiot, honest, you can use Chinese.

The beauty school senior, a lovely lady named Xiao Ning, looked at me. I looked at her.

I mulled this over. (Imagine a hamster on its wheel – that’s usually what I do.) Yeah, she was totally using me and my exotic facial features to improve her grade. Yeah, I was going to be a spectacle. Yeah, this was moderately sketchy.

But OMG, I have watched way too much America’s Next Top Model to say no. I mean, come on. Plus, I had spent the day reading the entire oeuvre of The Hairpin. And somehow, I thought of Mr. DiNozzio from Rotary, gently chiding my fifteen-year-old self that “you should never say no to random opportunities as you have no idea where they might lead”. Which was weird, since I hadn’t thought of him in years. [Also, that is a terrible thing to tell young, impressionable girls. I mean really, “ignore your personal boundaries in favor of what other people want” won’t end poorly at all.]

Over the next few days, I met Xiao Ning at random times. I volunteered to bring my own heels, since nothing in China fits my ginormous size nine feet, she swore her alterations of the costume would fit, and I saw the make-up job she wanted to do. It had a lot of blue and white. She called my cellphone at a variety of inappropriate times, including during class and after I had gone to bed in Jiuzhaigou. I think she was worried I would flake on her – after all, this was Xiao Ning’s final.  If I didn’t show up, she was screwed.

Friday morning was bright and cold. I was shocked to see the clear blue sky and took it as a positive omen as Xiao Ning met me at the front gates of Chuanda. (I wouldn’t trust me to make it to her cosmetology school on time either.) We taxied over and had breakfast. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. See, Xiao Ning had budgeted her time under the assumption that traffic was going to be much worse, which is an intelligent thing to do in Chengdu when you are travelling by car/bus/taxi. We hung around on the sixth floor of her building with several of her classmates, waiting for the staff of CHNGZQ (yes, that’s what the school was called) to show up. When the doors finally opened at nine am, there was a stampede.

Xiao Ning wasted no time getting me in a chair and started on her work. It was actually a fairly pleasant – someone turned on a playlist of Lady Gaga’s Greatest Hits and Mando-Pops Best Attempts. I became very adept in following specific requests in Chinese: look forward, look down, eyes closed, eyes open, etc.

About three hours later, a little after noon, I had to put on my outfit. This was the interesting part. I had watched, equal parts bemused and impressed, as the make-up went on my face, but the outfit and the headdress had pushed me over from “editorial Vogue shoot” to “outrageous”. Apparently, when Xiao Ning had planned out her design for her final, she had clearly decided to go Gaga or go home.

I was wearing a bra made up of black feathers, a feather boa wrapped around to hide the bra-straps, a black sequined mini-skirt, and heels. On my head was a giant fascinator thing that was larger than my head, black and doused liberally with silver glitter. Stuffed into the top, waving majestically over the entire outfit, was five peacock feathers that added an extra foot to my height.


I wore this outfit for several hours, including lunchtime. This was moderately annoying to Xiao Ning, who had to touch up my lipstick because chopsticks are hard.

The whole point of this production was for Xiao Ning’s make-up abilities to be judged. I was put in a line up of other bedecked Chinese girls and several teachers went down the line, judging us one by one. Then, we had a mini photo shoot with a Korean dude who was extremely hard for me to understand. (I have perfected a moderately confused but polite look. It gets used a lot, unfortunately.)  Here are a few pictures of my competition.

After that, Xiao Ning and I went back to the classroom to scrub the whole damn thing off. In retrospect, I probably should have kept the entire damn outfit on for the costume party later that night, but at the time I just wanted it all off. False eyelashes take some getting used to, yo. Plus, it would have made taking the bus home rather interesting indeed. As these things go, Xiao Ning graduated with top honors. I learned some new make-up techniques. A fun time was had by all, even if I was gawked at for an entire day.

Tyra Banks, eat your heart out.