He has medium-length, dark brown hair. Shorter than me. On the chubby side. He served me a cup of hot water one time, when I sat outside with my mom’s friend who had just returned from snorkeling in the Bahamas and capturing helicopter views of the Andros Island Blue Hole. She was showing me pictures and insisted I get something to drink, as she begged the guy to help her set up the Starbucks app on her phone. The other times, he would make my soy green tea latte. I don’t remember how many times I felt too lazy to pretend and instead used English with him. I don’t know if he noticed. Does he notice now? Now that I haven’t visited for two months?
My Cantonese was always a bit off. I guess any other foreigner who comes to the Garden Hotel would get dry cleaning via room service, not by directly going to the offices. But of course, I wasn’t a guest. I didn’t want to rely on the open dry cleaning stalls on the streets. And so listening to my fifth-grade Cantonese on the 8th (10th?) floor of the Garden Hotel, she would without fail fulfill my dry cleaning requests. I wondered if she knew. Does she notice now?
He always sat at the table across from the cash register. Monitoring interactions, I suppose. “Are you sure?” the cashier asked. Yes, I said. I get it all the time, I thought. Upon seeing my lack of hesitation, she said half-heartedly, “Because people don’t like it and after they try it they want to get another drink.” I smiled. Unbeknownst to her, this Korean grain latte would become my favorite drink even outside of China. Did the manager notice when I stopped coming to be, I’m pretty sure, the only customer who ordered it? I wonder what his connection to Korea is. Is he Korean? I should have tried talking to him.
Except for one time with a family friend, I always went alone. Usually, it was after I went to the gym and craved some good ol’ fried rice. As with most of my interactions pretending to be a local, I never said much. But I have to respect her unfailing service. Without the “I don’t want to be here” attitude from insincere employees in America, she didn’t pass judgement and left me alone to my fried rice. I never knew if she was having a bad day. She would simply take my order, ask me to pay, and leave me be. Just the way I like it. Does she notice?
He was tall. Old. Out of shape. Spoke English as often the only fair-skinned man in the facilities. Awkwardly, he danced along with us in this class. He usually wore a blue shirt with shorts. It was impossible not to notice him in a gym full of locals and the occasional lanky white girls. When I saw him with one of the many bulky Chinese personal trainers, I realized he got persuaded into getting a personal trainer, too. Or is “scammed” more accurate? One day, we passed by each other on the street. He wore that blue shirt. I wonder if he noticed. Does he notice now that I don’t go to that gym anymore?
I was only gone for a few days, but I don’t remember for what. Maybe a trip to Hong Kong, but definitely not as long as my other trips. And yet, when I walked in the lobby, he spoke up and asked where I had been. Apparently, he thought I had left the company. No, I told him. Another foreigner now helps cover for me sometimes. Smiling, I continued to walk to the elevators to the 16th floor offices. Does he notice?
Ever since buying some phone accessories from him, I would notice him whenever I walked past his shop. He always sat behind the table facing the street, waiting for customers who never seemed to come. Did he notice? If not, he doesn’t now.
She told me she knew she recognized me. “You’re on the cover of the magazine!” she said gleefully from behind the cash register. “You’re famous!” She pointed to the bookshelf behind me that she had just restocked with the latest issues. “Yes,” as if talking to herself. “I said it was you. You come here often!” Does she notice?
I only went two times, the second time three months later, but they remembered. I was that American girl who could speak Chinese and looked Chinese. Another mani and pedi? Yes, please. I never did go back again, not at any fault of theirs, but because I wanted to try other places. I liked them.
From an increasingly recognized expat feeling at home among locals, to being another nobody back at home on the other side of the world—do they notice?