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Will Morris IV: Never a dull moment for a ‘Laowai’ in China
Will Morris.jpg
Will Morris IV
When living in China, I frequently found myself making mistakes. The biggest blunders, made worse by the fact that I am so conspicuous, are what I like to call “Laowai Moments,” Laowai being the colloquial word Chinese use for foreigners.

While I have had more of these moments than I can count, one in particular stands out among all the others. In fact, it occurred right after I finished speaking to the group of middle-aged women at a gate in Hangzhou Airport, the subject of last week’s column.

When it was time to board, I grabbed my things, said goodbye to the women, and walked aboard the plane.

After conspicuously struggling through the narrow aisle with my huge suitcase, my stomach sank: my suitcase was way too large for the carry-on bin and there was a huge line of
Chinese passengers behind me. I apologized profusely to an elderly lady behind me and opened up my suitcase. Immediately a bundle of dirty clothes fell on the ground. Reaching down to pick it up, my backpack bumped into the woman, who let out a frustrated cry. Putting my clothes on my seat, I took out a dozen books from my suitcase. As I fumbled around with my things, people behind me began to grumble and that dreaded word floated toward me: Laowai.

Finally I got all of my books out, significantly reducing the size of my suitcase. But still, the suitcase did not fit. Surely thinking that enough was finally enough, a flight assistant came by and said in very loud, broken English that he is going to put my bag in an empty seat at the front of the aircraft. To do this, he has to barge his way through the line of disgruntled people while carrying my huge bag. The whispers of “Laowai” get even louder.

After putting my suitcase at the front of the plane, the flight assistant came back and kindly gave me a large white bag to put all of my books and clothes in. I absentmindedly put my phone in the white plastic bag. Utterly exhausted after a night of fitful sleep on the marble floor of the airport, I conked out, oblivious to the world.

A sudden bump jerked me awake. We had landed in Xiamen, my connection between Hangzhou and Singapore. Stretching my body and wiping sleep from my eyes I waited until most people had exited the plane. Then I groggily walked toward the front of the plane carrying the white plastic bag, with the same elderly woman who I had bumped with my backpack walking behind me. Finally reaching the front, I grabbed my suitcase in the empty seat.

Only then did I reach in my pocket to make sure I had everything. My stomach sank. My phone was missing. Immediately a cold sweat started to form on my back. Did I lose it?  Did someone take it? Leaving my suitcase, backpack and white plastic bag at the front, I frantically made my way back to my seat. Before I could get there, though, I had to get past the old woman, who exclaims “Ai-yah!” about 20 times as I contorted my body to squeeze past her in the narrow aisle.

I arrived at my seat. Oh my God, my phone wasn’t there. The same flight attendant, noticing that something is the matter, walked up to me and asked what was wrong. I responded in nervous, stammering Chinese that I have lost my phone.

Immediately, the flight attendant shouted in Mandarin to the two female assistants “the foreign gentleman lost his phone!” Like a trained military unit, the other assistants shouted in unison “the foreign gentleman has lost his phone” and sprang into action. One ripped the cushions off my seat, another does the same for the seat in the next row for good measure. Still unable to find it, they crouched on the floor looking under each seat of the plane just in case it somehow defied gravity and slid halfway up the plane. All of this happened so rapidly that all I could do was stare dumbly in awe.

It then occurred to me that I hadn’t checked my luggage for my phone. With a sinking feeling of impending doom, I walked to the front of the plane, squeezing past the attendants who are still diligently searching. Yep my phone is there, in that white plastic book bag. Hoping to quietly sneak away with some shred of dignity intact, I muttered in Mandarin to the attendant: “Hey, sorry man, I found my phone in my bag.”

He yelled again, louder than before, “The foreign gentleman found his phone. It was in the book bag I gave him!” The female attendants then exclaimed, “He found it!” And, bless them, they seemed genuinely happy for this victory.

Shaking my head in self-disgust and muttering a number of foul words to myself in English, I walked down the ramp from the airplane. My stomach dropped to an all-time low. I had forgotten that in China the plane does not go right up to the terminal. Rather, everyone has to ride a shuttle together. This means that every other passenger has been waiting for me for more than 15 minutes. The shuttle doors remained open. There was not a single sound coming from any of the people. Finally, as if to eliminate any doubt over who was causing the delay, the doors closed the moment I stepped on and immediately the shuttle drove away.

Suddenly, everyone started talking, loud and louder, with a sort of auditory chaos only possible in a bus packed to the brim with Chinese people. But one word stands out from the chaos again, and again, and again and again for the entire 10-minute shuttle ride: “Laowai.”

Will Morris IV is a graduate of Gainesville High School and recent graduate of Harvard University, where he studied history, East Asian studies and government.

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