Nutjobs Ahoy! (Or is it just me?)

Over the past month I’ve had three different interactions with people which have been so completely random, so without any context or direction, that the overly-thoughtful part of my mind has to wonder if I’ve missed the point entirely and, without my even being aware of it, have been party to an example of Schiller’s conception of the sublime. (For the non-nerds reading this blog, that concept, roughly-defined, would be something that transcends logic and reason, as well as uncontrollable nature, and requires perfect freedom from all restraint.)  It was either that or, as I’ll discuss at the end, I just ran into three different nutters in as many weeks.

The first interaction was on a bus headed somewhere way outside the heart of the city to visit one of my favorite professors. My classmates had all found seats, so I was standing, facing the back so I could talk with them, when I felt someone tap my shoulder. I turned around and there was a middle-aged Chinese man with a plastic bag. He pointed into the bag and said in English, “Crab! Very delicious!” Sure enough, at the bottom of the bag sat a large crab. At first I thought he was offering me the crab (!), and told him I didn’t want it. Any other person would have looked at me like I was nuts and found a seat. He just kept smiling and pointing into his bag.

“Crab!” he said again.

“Yes,” I said, “I can see that. It looks like a nice crab.”

He looked at me, beaming. I looked back, beginning to frown. Was I supposed to say something else? Then he sat down. For the rest of the ride, he proceeded to rattle off, in English, all the facts he could remember about America. “You are from Texas! Texas was once a country! Yes! Texas. . .very big!” “Very big, you’re right,” I said, trying with all my might to show I really didn’t want to talk, or more accurately listen, any more. But the facts kept coming. It was like talking to a Trivial Pursuit card deck. Eventually we reached our destination and got off. He waved. I noticed the bag containing his crab had created a huge puddle on the floor of the bus.

The second interaction was outside a public restroom in a park here. I was about to go in when a man standing outside with a coat draped over his shoulders and a cup of tea in his hand said the following: “Ma la ji si!” (Note: I won’t write the Chinese characters, or the tones, because this story works better if you have no context at all, the way I did.) I stared at him. He repeated himself. He, like crab-in-a-bag-guy, was all smiles. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs that were rapidly gathering and said, “What?”  He repeated himself again. I squinted at him in confusion. “Er. . .ma la ji si?” I said, by way of clarification. He nodded, then said, “Cai!” Cai can mean lots of different things, among them “guess” or “dish,” so I shook my head again. He said “ma la ji si” again, still without elaborating, and I took a stab at what I thought he was saying.

“Are you talking about the dish? Ma La Ji Si? The chicken dish?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding happily. We were nowhere near a restaurant, he had no food with him, no one was eating anything around us, and as we were standing outside a public restroom it’s highly doubtful that he was in the process of cooking the dish he’d mentioned. I just stared at him. He made a palms-up gesture which in China means, “You’ve got it. We’re done here,” and I turned on my heel and went into the bathroom. I still don’t know what it was all about. It would be exactly like if you were about to walk into a public restroom in your home country, and someone just said to you, “Spaghetti!” Weird.

The final interaction was two days ago, when I was sitting outside studying in my spot under the bridge. It was late in the afternoon, so I’d moved to the other side of my table so the sun was on my back, not in my face. I was absorbed in the book I was studying, so I didn’t notice the old woman who was approaching me until she was right at my table. I looked up and she said, with a big smile (why do all these interactions involve very happy people?), “You’re not facing the sun!”

I shook my head, perplexed as to why this was necessary to point out. “You’re right, I’m not.”

She pointed over my shoulder. “The sun is behind you. It’s not in your face.”

“Yes, I know that,” I said, growing more perplexed.

“That’s why you moved. So the sun wouldn’t be in your face.”


“The sun is back there.”

“I know.”

So it went for another three revolutions on the conversational merry-go-round, and then she made the palms-up gesture and toddled off.  I just stared at her departing back for a while, trying to figure out what had just happened.

So here’s my question: where do you draw the line between the culturally-explainable and the insane, between the everyday person on the street and the nutter? When you first get to China, and even sometimes for years afterward, the temptation is to try to use every single person’s behavior as a means of better understanding the culture. But the thing is, every country has nutters, and they don’t represent anything but themselves. I once saw a guy smash his cell-phone to bits on the floor of an airport in Houston. I’ve also seen an absolute clown-car of wack-jobs roaming the streets of Berkeley with shopping carts full of baby dolls or handfuls of leaflets warning against a coming alien invasion. Can you imagine a foreigner talking to one of them in an effort to better understand American culture? Yikes. Crab-in-a-bag-guy, random-cuisine-announcement-guy, and sun-in-your-eyes-lady might be normal people who fit into some kind of cultural explanation, but I’m more inclined to say they’re just random nutters. Someone should really draft some kind of sociological rule to define the line.


11 Responses to Nutjobs Ahoy! (Or is it just me?)

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. Joel says:

    man, you must *attract* the nutters somehow. And you didn’t even mention the guy walking down the street with his business hanging out or the guy flogging the concrete overpass supports with metal chains.

  3. kim smtih says:

    Ha! (that was for Joel’s comment!)

    Will enjoy your posts especially from here, Rob. (Just to remind us of all we’re missing!) K

  4. Dave D says:

    I’ve had more than my fair share of similar experiences in China. I’ll list a few, then class them as ‘nutjobs’ or ‘normal’ in an effort to establish a set of criteria.

    1. It’s pretty common for people to stare out you, particularly if you’re a white guy living in a more remote province. Though, when a four year old girl in a supermarket spontaneously drops all the groceries she’s carrying onto the floor so she can better point and shout at you, it does feel kind of weird. It’s also strange when bicycle-riders stare at you to such an extent the plow straight into a gutter and go over the handlebars. I’ll admit to a certain degree of schadenfraude if they do this while you’re in a bad mood.

    Both these would still be in the ‘not quite insane, just weird’ camp, because you need to factor in how strange the sight of a foreigner in these places are. Curiosity combined with a lack of tact can often be interpreted as nutjobbery. I’ve found that the very old and very young and consummate masters of this.

    2. Student comes up to you on the street. Wants to talk a great deal. So far, it’s normal. You ascertain that he isn’t one of the several hundred students you teach. Still normal. He is blinking and twitching a lot, which is a little less normal, but still not crazy. He wants to carry your groceries home for you. You don’t really want this because he seems more than a little odd and you don’t want him knowing your address. You do agree out of politeness to walk with him to the next intersection.

    He then asks you three questions:

    1) How much is a candle in Australia?
    It’s been a while since you bought any Australian candles. You answer with… “a buck?”
    2) Have you drive in desert have wind in hair?
    You answer with… “uh… no?”
    3) What does a viper head feel touch?
    You can’t quite recall petting any snakes. “Uh… dunno?”

    I filed this one under maybe crazy, or curious student with bizarre reading habits. It’s common for students here to want to practice their English, so it’s possible he was just trialling new vocabulary, but if so, then I really want to see the vocabulary book he was using. It sounds kind of awesome.

    • Rob says:

      I’m with you on these. A buddy of mine in Shandong province once had an elderly Chinese woman stand behind him in a grocery store line and rummage through his shopping basket to see what he was buying. Oh, and have you ever had a female student stalk you? That’s a fun one, too. It’s not Fatal Attraction-dangerous, mind you, but definitely uncomfortable.

      • Dave D says:

        Yeah. I realized pretty quickly that the stalking-thing could get extremely awkward extremely fast. I decided to institute a rule – if I was visiting somewhere with a female student, there should be at least three students in company, mostly to avoid gossip or perceptions of favouritism.

        It worked pretty well for the most part.

        I’ve not had someone actually rummage through my groceries, I think I’d be mightily pissed off. I did find that once I began to pick up Chinese, I sometimes heard other people in the supermarket lines gossiping about my food.

        “He bought chicken! I bought chicken! How interesting!”

        Yes, foreign people eat chicken too. Our devastating secret has been revealed.

  5. Fansy says:

    Hi, I’m from China:-D

    In my opinion, I think maybe they are just too happy to control themselves. You know, when you are very happy, you want to share the happiness to someone else, and at that time, they met you, but they don’t know what to say to a foreigner. That’s why the strange conversation happened…

    • Rob says:

      That would be nice, wouldn’t it? It’s always intrigued me, though, how none of my Chinese friends have ever experienced anything like this. It’s a very rare thing indeed for a random Chinese person to approach another random Chinese person and express their happiness. Somehow it’s more common as a foreigner. Hmmmm…..

      • Cat says:

        I was told by one Chinese university student on a train one time, as he walked up to me at random to discuss my journey – “This is what Americans do, right? I watched the TV show Friends. I know Americans meet new people all the time by just walking up to them and starting to talk to them. This is not really common in China. But I knew you were a foreigner…” Enlightenment.

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