The Perks of Being a Waiguoren

It was nearly 9am and we were late. The taxi driver had failed to properly navigate our directions, and seemed very reluctant to do her job early on this Friday morning. My colleagues and I weren’t really sure where we were going – not a totally unusual situation to find ourselves in since coming to China. We had no choice but to forgive her; our Chinese is still woefully, embarrassingly poor. It wasn’t her fault.

The day was ‘Tree Planting Day’ or ‘Arbor Day’ – apparently that’s a thing – and the seemingly persistent cloud of murky pollution that hangs over Wuhan had decided to subside enough for the sun to gleam through. Using our combined natural navigational instincts, and Apple maps, we finally arrived at our destination – three coaches worth of foreigners. By foreigners, I mean non-Chinese people. When you, a non-Chinese resident of Wuhan, are spotted in the streets, often you hear a child or a bemused pensioner shout “waiguoren!”, which means “foreigner”, so we all just call ourselves that. Unfortunately, back in the UK, using this word in everyday parlance makes you sound like some UKIP supporting, immigration bashing, union jack waving, EDL sympathising fascist. So yeah, forgive me, that one isn’t my fault.

This was perhaps the largest group of…non-Chinese people I’d been surrounded by since, well, Scotland. Even Vietnam didn’t have this densely populated an area, though the main bar strip in Ho Chi Minh City gave its best shot. Although, thinking about it, I’m not sure they were foreigners, maybe just dickheads? Anyway, the point is, there were a lot of foreigners here, some teachers, some students, a variety of other miscellaneous occupations, and we were all being packed onto buses to…go do some gardening.

Obviously I’m being facetious. The tradition, in Wuhan anyway, is that, on Tree Planting Day, the city’s foreign experts (including yours truly) travel into the still expanding Wuhan suburbs to plant trees, the day having been chosen, March 12, in remembrance of the death of anti-monarchist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. And I had no reason to be skeptical or demeaning because if anything it meant a day out in the fresh air (lol) doing something physical for a change, and, you know, a day off work. Generally I enjoy my job, but a shortened four day week, two weeks after coming back from a whole month away in Vietnam where the sacrifice was the craziness of the classroom for five trees planted in your name and honour certainly helped combat the post holiday blues. Did I mention the free lunch in a fancy hotel?

Fast forward forty minutes and we’re on our way to the Sino-French Ecological Demonstration City deep into Hanyang, one of Wuhan’s three main districts. On the bus I was faced with a choice: socialise with a whole load of waiguoren, or put my headphones on. Bear in mind that it still hadn’t hit 10am, and this wasn’t technically a work day. Essentially, there was only one real option. I threw on my iPod and zoned out. I was on a Sleater-Kinney kick (though, realistically, when am I not these days?) and pressed play on their album The Woods which, of course, I found hilarious because, in the most tenuously crowbarred music reference since my last blog post, I was on my way to plant a tree in a place that, in around thirty years (yes, I googled how long it takes a tree to grow, I’m not a fucking dendrologist), would ostensibly be a forest.

On arrival, this so-called ‘Ecological Demonstration City’ seemed to be an as yet built up plot of land in a still developing part of the city, although the looming, deserted apartment towers, open malls and a sprinkling of high end hotels suggested that much was expected of it. Our task was to plant at least three trees, no more than five, on the plot. Through many long winded speeches from the foreign expert bureau chief, a foreign liaison from a pharmaceutical company and their Ramona Flowers lookalike interpreter, I deduced that this place was to be some kind of self-sustainable community that would, eventually, be completed and run in an energy efficient way, keeping emissions to a minimum – a system to then be perfected and copied across China. Looking up at the sky most days, especially when news of school closures and serious pollution related health warnings reach here from Beijing, it’s hard to believe that such a place will exist here anytime soon, never mind actually do any good.

I had to put that from my mind for the moment though. I was an ambassador for all people from overseas under the employ of a Wuhanese organisation and I had trees to plant. Much like a lot of things you experience in Wuhan – being accosted by an elderly restaurant owner in the street, witnessing a child defecate outside a Pizza Hut, having a camera lens shoved in your face when taking public transport – it was quite bizarre. I came into this activity full of confidence but, frankly, my outdoor labouring skills aren’t exactly well honed. Even though there were already around a hundred root desiring holes about one third dug (god forbid we work too hard), the trees were a lumbering weight that I had to drag like dead corpses into their shallow graves. They seemed fully grown to me – they should just call it tree moving day. I planted my first, second and third trees with ease but got stuck in a damp, swampy patch of soil that dented my enthusiasm and almost ruined my New Balance. Luckily, there was a TV station and journalist on hand to document it all and, obviously, my friends and I ended up on the 7 o’clock news. I don’t want to insult my fellow tree planters, but I certainly looked pathetic. Spent, we limped back to our provided transport and were driven to relatively nice hotel for a buffet lunch, leaving a muddy trail of footprints and scattered dirt on the shiny dining hall floor.

If Tree Planting Day is Wuhan’s, or China’s, way of showing that it cares about the environment, it must seem like an empty gesture considering the amount of fumes and toxins it pumps daily into the atmosphere from construction sites, power stations, factories and car exhausts. But if the celebration, and the existence of a plan to create self sustaining and clean communities, is an honest indication that the nation and its big businesses realise and understand that things have to change, even as China continues to grow and expand, sometimes to the detriment of the many fascinating people here and the lives of everyone across the planet, then that can only be a good thing. At the very least, it makes clear that we, as foreigners, are as appreciated by the government who allow us to work here as the friendly Chinese people we meet in our everyday lives.

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