The first Chinese word I learned while teaching English in China was waiguolao, foreigner. This word was gleefully shouted at me on the street, at the market, even in my English classroom. By my third year in China, I had accepted being a waiguolao. With my Anglo-Saxon features and minimal Mandarin-language skills, I could hardly expect to relate to the Chinese as anything but a foreigner.
But relationships can change.
Before returning to America, I traveled south to the Chinese port city of Sanya, on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The route from my hotel to the city was a 20-minute walk along a lonely gravel road that hugged the rocky shoreline and overlooked a beautiful stretch of tropical blue ocean.
Every day as I trudged this route I passed a flimsy, woven-grass shack nestled in a deep gully. Rats scurried under and along its sides. I'd seen them many times, but it wasn't the rats I noticed as much as a three-year-old girl who stood waiting for me at the doorway of this lopsided, sad-looking home.
"Waiguolao!" she'd squeal with excitement as soon as she spotted me. "Waiguolao! Waiguolao!"
Then, while jumping up and down, she'd begin her two-word English vocabulary: "Hello! Bye-bye! Hello! Bye-bye!"
This barefooted child, dressed in torn clothes, always greeted me in this manner. Before long, her mother joined her at the doorway. On several occasions, we two adults tried to converse, but my Chinese was poor and hers was too heavily accented for me to understand. We settled for smiles or nods.
On my last day in Sanya, I took the girl's picture and asked her proud mother for her address so I could mail her the photograph.
There was an awkward pause, and a worried expression crossed her face. I was puzzled. Most Chinese were delighted by the offer of a picture of their only child.
But as she gazed at the shack behind her, I realized her concern.
Such a makeshift home couldn't possibly have an address. More than likely, it was built illegally. Any publicity as to its location could bring housing officials here to enforce demolition policies for squatters.
"A friend's address?" I quickly added in Chinese.
Relief passed over her face and she motioned to a woman walking our way. This was the friend, who lived in a stucco bungalow farther up the road.
After I had the address, I explained that I was leaving the next day and promised again to send the picture. I stumbled through a few memorized Chinese farewells, then began the walk back to the hotel. Before going far, however, I heard a child's familiar voice: "Jie jie! Jie jie! Bye-bye, jie jie!"
I stopped, taken back by what I'd heard. Had I misunderstood?
Turning around, I saw the two of them, a smiling mother and daughter, waving enthusiastically from the broken-down doorway of their dilapidated home.
The little girl called out again, and there was no mistaking the words that warmly embraced me.
"Older sister!" she was calling. "Older sister! Bye-Bye, older sister!"