John Michael Glionna
6 min readDec 11, 2018


It was an overcast weekday morning, and my mother-in-law was heading out on foot to do some food shopping.

I decided to tag along.

You know, mix among the neighborhood locals, remind myself again firsthand just what’s available and what things cost here.

Most of all, though, I’ll admit, I wanted to try my hand as a big-lug foreign street comedian, to peddle my work-in-progress standup routine to get a rise out of any unsuspecting Beijing passersby.

After twenty-some-odd years of coming here, I’m sad to say, I no longer draw the same goofy lingering stares I did in the 1990s, less than two decades after the Cultural Revolution when Mao tagged all Westerners as dangerous bai gui, or White Devils.

Back in the 90s, Beijing had a Western personality, a Canadian known as “Da Shan,” or, Big Mountain, who spoke flawless Mandarin, without the slightest hint of an accent.

I remember my wife telling me that she couldn’t tell he wasn’t Chinese until she saw his face. I did a story for a Big City newspaper on Big Mountain, who back then was a true anomaly.

Today, Beijing teems with people from around the world, many of whom are quite fluent. Young Chinese speak some English as well.

Nowadays, few people in the hustle-bustle of the city’s subways, restaurants and tourist sites turn to look at a foreign face.

But the old neighborhoods are different.

My in-laws still inhabit a first-floor apartment where my wife lived as a teenager, a place built by the Russians in the 1950s, as part of China’s burgeoning military industrial complex.

The area remains old school; families have lived here for decades.

When I first visited Beijing in 1995, my father-in-law took a chance on allowing me to stay at the family’s apartment here. The local Communist Party watchman, who manned a little booth to keep an eye on people’s comings and goings, like the foolish doorman in Oz’s Emerald City, immediately had his eyes on me.

On any outings, I had to leave first, by ten minutes or so, before my wife, her sister or her mother, so the family wouldn’t be identified as the hosts to this white, oversized, unwelcome guest.

Some 20 years later, this was the first time I’d returned to stay with my in-laws at the old apartment for any amount of time. I figured that the neighborhood had progressed, that foreigners were no longer under suspicion, that my stay here would be no big deal, raise no eyebrows.

I asked my wife about any lingering security when we arrived. She didn’t know; she’s been gone for so long, she’s more American than Chinese.

But that morning, when we left to go shopping, my wife ushered me out the door first.

“Where’s Mama?” I said suddenly, turning to see wasn’t there.

“She had to empty the trash,” came the reply. “Don’t worry about it.”

A few blocks away, at the intersection of two main streets, my mother-in-law caught up with us. She’s a stylish woman, thin, hair coiffed, with a purple fleece jacket and coordinated scarf. She can wear the same-size clothes as her two daughters.

“Don’t worry, Mama,” I told her. “If anyone asks about me, just tell them that I’m your driver, or your body guard.”

She laughed. I’d made my point: She’d lagged behind on purpose.

For 20 minutes, we zig-zagged on side-streets, my mother-in-law leading the way, until we reached a block featuring a row of small markets, selling all kinds of meat, fruit and household goods.

We walked into the biggest to see owners hawking fruit, calling out to passersby — old men walking with their hands behind their backs, women pulled little grocery carts, mothers pushing strollers carrying fresh-faced, gorgeous, coal-eyed little Chinese babies.

Then I noticed: My wife and mother-in-law had wandered off.

I was alone, ready for the first act.

I walked up to a nearby stall and pointed to some sort of strange fruit.

Tai gui,” I said.

Too expensive.

Now, my Mandarin is infantile at best. After so many years coming here, frankly, I’m ashamed of it. When I meet someone from China who speaks English at the level of my Mandarin, I hang my head in embarrassment over how my weak Chinese must sound to native speakers.

In the past, I’ve lunched with my wife’s schoolmates when one turned to me — a cop, a nice guy who’s seen me here many times.

“So, why isn’t your Chinese better, by now?”

I can understand his question. It can’t be that hard, right?

Years ago, I asked a good friend Gong-Gong just how long it would take me to become more fluent, at least at the rate I was going.

His answer: “One hundred years.”

It is what it is.

But here’s the thing, in the old neighborhood, where people still aren’t used to white faces, any amount of Mandarin is impressive. It’s like walking on the street, passing some dog on a leash, and having him look up at you to say, “How ya doin’, pal?”

It’s that improbable. In China, these people are my audience, my ability to say a few words in their language tantamount to a stupid pet trick.

See the big foreigner speak.

So, that morning at the market, when I said something the fruit-seller could understand, her reaction was immediate: She laughed, as did several others within hearing distance.

Mandarin, you see, with its four tones, is so difficult to pronounce for dolts like me that I’m proud anyone can understand me when my wife isn’t on hand to immediately translate, repeat the same thing I’d thought I’d just said, this time it the right tones.

Quickly, the fruit seller returned fire with a flood of Mandarin, insisting that her offerings were all fresh and reasonably priced.

So, I held up another piece of fruit.

“Tai xiao.”

Too small.

Then I quickly moved on before she could lure me in for a conversation and expose my fraud: that I actually couldn’t have a give-and-take talk.

I rejoined my mother-in-law and tried my routine on a vegetable seller she approached, until my wife told me to get lost. She repeated the same scold: as soon as any seller spotted me, their prices instantly rose.

There’s still this stubborn belief here that all westerners are rich. I guess the Chinese watch too much TV.

I have a trick when cornered by a pushy merchant pressuring me to make a purchase at some wildly-inflated White Devil price.

Wo shi mei guo non min,” I’ll say.

I’m an American peasant.

When that doesn’t work, I let them have it, using all these in the same sentence:

Bu dong.”

Don’t understand.

Bu yao.”

Don’t want.

Bu hao.”

No good.

Mei you qian.”

Don’t have any money.

That usually does it. Not even the most aggressive seller can find a crack in that blast of American peasant logic.

I used none of these lines with the fish seller. He stood outside the market, with several fish flopping on a newspaper on the sidewalk.

As my mother-in-law apprised the catch, he insisted they were all recently caught. Succulent, he assured.

Then I walked up: “Two for the price of one,” I said.

Well, the look on his face was something to see, a comic mix of disbelief and shock, with a flash of rising anger. He was from the countryside, unused to seeing any foreigner, let alone one that was giving him lip.

“Don’t listen to him,” my mother-in-law spoke up. “He’s only joking.”

Then he got it. His face flashed into a beaming smile. Everyone around us laughed. Suddenly, he loved us. He knew he’d been had.

“American bastard,” he said, smiling at me.

He had a point.

On the way home, a few blocks from the apartment, my mother-in-law slowed her pace, and allowed us to walk ahead.

I couldn’t blame her.

Tomorrow: The Excursion