You look very terrible, Miss Mary: Unsolicited Advice for the Laowai

I’m still sick. Not sick like last week when I was horizontal and feverish, with my nasal cavity draining like Victoria Falls. No, this week I’m exhausted from working all weekend, sleeping terribly, and breathing in the disconcertingly opaque and smokey air all morning. According to the US consulate’s air quality reading, this afternoon we were veering into Very Unhealthy.


The romantic early morning mist is actually smog.


My exhaustion shows- undereye bags deep enough to carry a few loads of laundry, the gaunt cheekbones of a still fleshy cadaver, the colouring of… well, the colouring of someone not in peak form.  I’m like the canary in the coal mine, dropping dead from carbon monoxide poisoning long before the miners head down to work.

You may recall Victor from last week’s post. He was the one who bought me my much needed meds, back when I was a hacking, snorting, sniffling mess.

These drugs.


If you’re ever sick with a cold and/or cough in China, flash this picture at the pharmacist.


Today, he sat himself down opposite me as I worked at my desk and asked me, with a few dry, brown leaves poking out from inside his hoodie, what exactly do people do in bars? And, is it true that there are bars where Chinese girls go to find foreign boyfriends? Oh, and Miss Mary, your hair looks very strange today.


This is what terrible looks like. Am still not sure what’s wrong with my hair.


China is frequently the home of the rather disconcerting non-sequitor.

I’ve been in classes where we were talking about clowns or horses and suddenly it is declared that I’m really quite fat.

I’ve learned to roll with it, after 6 years of intensive training in Turkey where my appearance (and its myriad flaws) was constantly scrutinized, dissected and frankly stated aloud without even the pretence of cushioning the blow.

There was that one time when I was in Kayseri, recovering from a two week bout of bronchitis, feeling feeble and consumptive and at what was quite possibly my lowest adult weight ever. Walking to school for the first time after several days spent wasting away in bed, barking, I ran into the German teacher at my school, who blurted out that my thighs were really quite fat. Another time, I was jogging around the school ground one morning and as I went past the head mistress of the high school (my boss), she reached out, slapped my ass, and scolded, “Popo, no no!” (a stupid line from a jeans ad at the time that meant something along the lines of ‘minimize that ass, lady!’). I’ve had my lunches scrutinized by my adult students, and all of my body parts analyzed for acceptability.  Advice was always forthcoming, whether I wanted it or not.

So yes, today my hair looks very strange.

This was followed up with a very earnest declaration that I looked very terrible today, and could he give me some suggestions? I’m not sure he realized the impact of the word ‘terrible’ so I’ll let that slide. At least he didn’t launch into a lecture about how I ought to start wearing an inch of makeup to look presentable (I’m looking at you, Turkish ladies!).

Among the things I need to do to stop looking so terrible:

  1. eat an apple every morning
  2. drink milk before bed (cow milk, not soy or rice milk. I had to clarify this)
  3. eat very little dinner
  4. go for a walk after dinner
  5. go to bed early


All of which I tend to do anyway these days (except the milk thing. I don’t like milk).

Also, I need to drink more water.

That was stated, in spite of the fact that I already had a huge mug of hot water before me that I sipped throughout our analysis of my terribleness.

It’s filled to the brim with water.


Sometimes I don’t quite know what to do with all the brutal honesty I get here. It’s not done in a cruel way, merely as a matter of fact. Like saying, oh, my, it’s chilly out today! And I think it’ll rain. And you’ve gained weight, haven’t you? Hey, I wonder what’s for lunch?

But now I have to go teach for several hours, fully cognizant of the fact that my hair looks very strange and that I, overall, look terrible.

I really wish I knew what was so strange about my hair. Anyone?


Postscript: Heading out of the school after class, sometime around 7:30pm, accompanied by Victor and Paula (my TA), in search of a taxi that can legally leave Minhang and go all the way back into central Shanghai. No such luck. As we flagged down a ramshackle local taxi to take me to the metro station, Paula reminded me to dress more warmly tomorrow, and Victor added, ‘and when you wake up, wash your face with cold water!”

Apropos of nothing.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.