After being refused a room by six or seven other places, I finally gave up and checked into Leo’s Youth Hostel last night. It was nearly midnight when I arrived, but the street was still festive outside, and dozens of people were in the common room just inside the hostel. I went up to the desk, asked how much it was for a room, and checked in. The process was pretty quick, and there weren’t any communication difficulties with the girl at the counter, despite the gulf between her Beijing accent and my Taiwanese one. The decorations looked pretty nice, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I realized I’d soon be able to take a shower, much needed after my 26 hour train ride to Beijing.
Then it happened. A solidly built man lumbered up next to me and asked in a British voice, “Ah! Gone native then, have we?”
“W-what do you mean? I just got to Beijing,” I stammered.
He gave me a side-long glance and said, “You’ve been speaking Chinese with the girl over there. It is impressive, but what are you trying to prove?”
“Well, it’s a habit, actually,” I replied. “I’ve been living in Taiwan for three years, and I pretty much always speak Chinese in situations like this.”
To that, he looked genuinely shocked and asked, “But, they don’t speak Chinese in Taiwan, do they?”
“Sure they do. Look at my card.” I handed him my Taiwanese residence permit.
“Hmm… I guess that is Chinese. Well, I’m off to drink with my mates. See you later.”
With that he turned around and went back in to the common room. It was then I realized that I was as much out of place at an international youth hostel as I would have been in a local one. The room was full of energetic back-packers, nearly all English speakers, who for the most part had much less interest in China than they did in travelling in general. Some were new to China. Others, were China “experts” who had been travelling all over the country for nearly a year. I saw six or seven travellers huddled around one of these experts, a German guy who was teaching people how to pronounce the Chinese numbers and telling people how much they should expect to pay for what, “You’ve gotta watch those little stands. Like the one with the pork dumplings accross the street. They say it costs two kuai for one, but you should only pay one.”
On the way into the hostel, I’d seen the same stand, and the price of the pork dumplings was written right on the stand. They only cost six mao. The “expert” was telling everybody to pay almost double the real price! Thinking back on my experience with the rickshaw drivers, I resolved to be doubly careful; if there was one street more than any other that was full of people looking to rip off ignorant westerners, I was living on it. I then stifled a chuckle as I realized that despite never having even been within a 1000 kilometers of Beijing before, I was far more capable of doing what I wanted and getting around than any of the “experts” in the hostel. What a great feeling! On the other hand, just by the virtue of that fact, I’d likely have little in common with the other travellers and feel a bit isolated.
Another issue was just that the vast majority of the tourists in the hostel were British or British commonwealth. Despite not living there for years, I was American. After putting my things away, and showering, I went out to the common room. After a bit of wandering around and fidgeting, I saw a table that seemed a bit more jovial than the others, introduced myself and sat down.
There were four British guys and a couple of Australian girls. One of the guys, named Shawn, was a riot. He just never seemed to run out of loud, boisterous conversation, jokes, reasons to call a toast, or high spirits. I can’t remember the names of the others, except that the two Australian girls’ names each end in -ie. They’re both of Chinese decent (though it doesn’t seem like they speak or read much Chinese), and they said my Chinese name isn’t a “real name”! I wanted to tell them that my teacher who named me, a Beijinger who was at CU during my freshman year, even gave me his family name. They didn’t think 小 could be in a name, either. I was burning to ask them about the tech company owner in southern China, named 小馬, or about the previous frickin president of China, who was named 小平, but I couldn’t. I just blew it off and tried to be as affable as I could and get to know everybody.
It was a really friendly group of people, but still, I felt my “American-ness” putting distance between us. There were a few good natured ribs about me needing to learn “English” (instead of “American”) before I went back to Taiwan and continued teaching, a few comments about politics, and a few other conversational landmines to avoid. Most of all, though, I just don’t talk like they do. A third of their jokes are incomprehensible to me, and I get the impression that my way of phrasing stuff grates on their ears. The other odd thing, is that nobody really seems to know anything about Taiwan. It’s a weird feeling. Sigh, it’s a good thing they’re such a friendly group! I’d have given up completely, otherwise.
After a few hours of chatting with them, I went back to my room and hit the sack.