Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 7, 2005. Oh, the People You’ll meet – Foreigners in New Orleans.

I pulled into New Orleans on a Wednesday night, just as rain began to fall on the quiet downtown street where I found the hostel. The manager assigned me to a bunk up on the second floor. There were three bunk beds in the room, but I hoped I’d have it all to myself; I’ve gotten quite used to the privacy of my van. That wasn’t to be, though. A young Chinese woman came in looking for the bed next to mine, so I cleared off all the things I’d dropped there and we began to chat. She was from Taiwan, doing a year as a foreign student in San Jose. She liked it, she said, but she was having a lot of trouble in school, and was afraid she might fail. Her English wasn’t too good, and I could well imagine she wasn’t ready for classes where people didn’t slow down or simplify their speech for her. I certainly did both, else I got that blank response that clearly meant she hadn’t understood but didn’t want to say so. She was enjoying San Jose, though. I hope her school at home understands that her education in the US might be more cultural than academic, and doesn’t hold it against her if her grades weren’t up to her Chinese standards.

It was quickly clear, though, how many little things she didn’t get in the US. Her parents had friends in Jackson, Mississippi, whom she was on her way to visiting. She had flown into the New Orleans airport expecting them to meet her, but no one was there. In some confusion, she made her way to the hostel, which she had found on the internet before she left California. She phoned Jackson, and as she explained to me, found that “there had been a mix-up.” Her friends agreed to drive the four hours from Jackson the next day to pick her up, but she was on her own to get back to New Orleans after the visit. I offered her the use of my computer, and she got on the internet to try to find out how to get back from Jackson later in the week. When I asked how it was going, she was looking for flights for the short trip, and was dismayed at the prices.

There were no buses, apparently – she showed me a confusing website at “grayhoundbus.com” that didn’t provide any useful information. How was she to know that although the color is usually spelled “gray,” the bus company (and the dog) are spelled “greyhound?” Once she got to the right site, she was relieved to find that the bus was only $30, instead of $195 for the one-way one-hour flight. I wondered how many thousands of other things she had trouble with, little things that we take for granted, or understand automatically without even thinking about it.

That evening another Chinese girl showed up in my room, Sofia. Her family was also from Taiwan, but they moved to Vancouver when she was a child, and she was now a college junior studying in Calgary. So English was no problem. She was touring the US for six weeks on her winter break. She was excited to be on her own, but she also missed home and her friends. After a couple hours of chatting, we got around to the fact that neither of us liked to eat out alone, and we both wanted some Cajun food, so at eight in the evening we set out for the French quarter in search of dinner. She was disappointed that she wouldn’t be allowed to drink, since she wasn’t 21; it seemed to her a waste of being in New Orleans. I wasn’t sorry. I wanted to be in the city, but I’m no fan of the drunken revelry that characterizes French Quarter street life. When we got there, Sofia seemed a bit put off by Bourbon Street as well, and we wandered on quieter streets until we found a restaurant that suited us.

Photo © donbw.

Sofia was studying business, but she didn’t want to; her parents wanted her to study business. Good Chinese parents, they wanted their daughter to be settled in life, to make good money, to be safe and secure. She didn’t know what she did want to do, but business wasn’t it. I asked if she could take a year or two off from school, get a job for a while, see what it was like to be a working person. No way, she said, in a Chinese family you can’t do that. She’d never had a boyfriend, but that didn’t much worry her, and she wasn’t much interested in getting married or having children. She wants to travel, she said. As a Canadian business major with fluent English and Chinese, that shouldn’t be hard. But after only a few weeks in the US she was lonely already, so perhaps she’s not quite cut out for the traveling life? She asked what I did, and I told her about my consulting and my travels around the US. She was awed. She wanted to be living like me, she said, when she was my age.

When the check came, I decided to pay it. When I was in graduate school, I found myself at a conference with a lot of academics. A group was going to lunch, and I was invited along. The professor sitting next to me offered to pick up my lunch. When I thanked her, she said that when I was her age I’d do the same for young people for whom a lunch is a big deal. So I sometimes do. Sofia protested, but when I told her that story she was delighted. She agreed that when she was my age (and living like me?) she’d buy younger people meals as well.

In the morning I got to talking to a woman from Beijing, who was traveling around the US for a month on a Greyhound bus pass. She was dismayed and frustrated by the time she got to New Orleans. She had walked around the French Quarter, which she liked, but she was sick of museums and didn’t know what else to do. She had loved New York, Boston, and Washington, but everyplace else she went, she found herself in a dry little downtown with nothing much happening, and no way to get around in the city. She wanted to go to San Antonio and Tucson, but I warned her she’d be at a loss without a car. She wanted to go to Las Vegas, and from there to the Grand Canyon, but hadn’t realized that the north rim of the canyon is closed in winter. She wanted to go to Denver, which I assured her would also be no fun without a car. She was considering the Rocky Mountains, but even if she could get a bus up to Estes Park, she didn’t have boots or serious snow clothes. She didn’t know how to drive, so renting a car wasn’t an option. In some ways, she felt the way I sometimes feel – at a loss for

what to do as a tourist. Without a car or at least a bicycle, it’s hard to get any sense of the US. And tourist sights don’t show you anything about life in the places you’re passing through. I felt bad for her. She hadn’t known what she was getting into, visiting the US, and she’d probably go home dismayed by her stay instead of intrigued.

I talked to her for too long, and missed seeing Sofia before she headed out for the day. I left a note on her bed to wish her well. And to tell her that her parents would adjust to her way of being happy in life, if she knew what she wanted. They were directing her towards their form of happiness, but if she did okay they would eventually catch on. So she should go for what she wanted, and let her parents get used to it in time, even if it isn’t really the Chinese way. She’s a Canadian now, after all, only partly Chinese. It will be hard for her parents, but she isn’t going to live her whole life as the good Chinese daughter.

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