'Foreign devil' on a Chinese pool deck

Her wet suit earned her a nickname at the pool.

DIVE: A winter swimmer jumps into a lake in Houhai in Beijing, China, in January.

For centuries, the term yang guizi (foreign devil) plagued Westerners in China. It took decades of international friendships and open door policies to remove this derogatory remark from the Chinese mind-set.

In today's China, no one uses yang guizi to address a foreign visitor. It's rude and disrespectful.

But there is the saying, "If the shoe fits," and in my case, yang guizi fits like a glove.

When I came to teach English in Luzhou, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan Province, my first order of business was to find a pool. As an avid swimmer, I wasn't about to abandon my chosen sport just because I was in China.

My Chinese friends immediately sent me to the Number 6 Middle School's newest acquisition, a 50-meter indoor pool. It was quite the showpiece and the perfect match for me. Every day found me speeding up and down the lanes while those less skilled looked on in wonder.

It wasn't until late September that I noticed the pool water wasn't being heated. According to the staff, many pools in the southern areas of the country had no heating capabilities but still remained open. Those who used them during the chillier months were the die-hard winter swimmers.

I, too, hastily decided to stick out the rest of the year by joining the city's winter swimming club.

On a warm Oct. 1, I paid my fees, received my monthly tickets, and off I splashed.

But by late November, when the water temperature hit 55 degrees F., I was suffering. I watched enviously as my club colleagues dived in. They easily swam for more than 30 minutes, exited onto the deck, and made a refreshing victory jog around the pool.

Despite my swimming prowess, I couldn't endure that kind of cold, so I cheated. I ordered a wet suit from America.

As soon as I strolled out onto the pool deck in my sleek, black get-up, I brought down the house. The lifeguards, the pool workers, the swimmers, even the locker room attendants gathered around to have a better look.

Never in their lives had they seen such a sight.

"What is it?"

"Why are you wearing it?"

"Where did you buy it?"

"How much was it?"

I felt quite smug in my new suit. While others froze, I was about to cruise the lanes in comfort and style.

Then I felt the tug.

"What's this?" the lifeguard said, pulling on the 2-1/2-foot cord that dangled from the zipper along my lower back.

This cord allowed me to zip or unzip the suit by myself without getting a second person to do it for me.

Thinking myself clever, I replied, "That's my tail. Didn't you know foreigners have tails?"

As soon as I said it, I knew I was in trouble.

"Yang guizi! (Foreign devil!)" one of the onlookers shouted, playfully thumping me on the shoulder.

Sure enough, how could anyone deny that my alien appearance would classify me as anything but a devil? I had a tail. I had an unearthly, dark, rubbery skin. All I was missing were the horns and a pitchfork.

No matter how derogatory, insulting or rude the name, it seemed to fit.

Now I am affectionately known as yang guizi among our small winter swimmers' circle, even when I've left the pool decks.

The other day in the open-air farmers' market, I ran into one of the pool attendants. "Connie yang guizi!" she cheerfully called out, hailing me from afar. Everyone within earshot, from the sellers to the buyers, looked up in shock. How would the foreigner react to such a demeaning label? My wave and laugh followed. After all, "if the shoe (or tail) fits, wear it."

And wear it I do, with honor and pride.

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