The Red Carpet Treatment

I finally started my new job and I’ve been crazy busy for the last few weeks. I spend most of my time in smaller Chinese cities touring facilities and carrying out inspections of security programs at said facilities. For some of these facilities, a foreigner showing up is a big deal. I’ve observed some really interesting stuff the last couple of weeks that has lead to no small amount of embarrassment for me. Let me explain.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I am not high up in the company. I have a team of really fantastic Chinese co-workers who are all doing the same job as me, but they are more experienced at it, as I have just started. I have a background in what I’m doing, but I am new to the company and to their way of doing things, so I rely heavily on my co-workers for coaching and advice. Also, I am the only foreigner on our team. Well, the only non-Asian foreigner. However, in spite of being the same “rank” as my co-workers and far less experienced, I get treated very, very differently when we’re doing site visits. For example, at one point last weekend we had to go through a metal detector screening using hand held metal detectors. My Chinese co-workers went first, no big deal, but when it was my turn, I was asked to “wait a second” and they literally pulled out a red carpet for me to stand on while they did the screening. HUMILIATING. Later (this happened at multiple sites), when it came time to order lunch for me and my team, the facility staff ordered regular old cheap Chinese take out for my colleagues, but ordered something special for me…expensive pizza from Papa John’s. That was also humiliating and actually a huge pain in the ass because they’d already ordered a ton of Chinese food (that was thrown away) that looked fine and I was starving, but they made me wait an extra 90 minutes for the pizza because they didn’t want to give Chinese food to a “foreign guest.” Part of that was obviously their pre-conceived idea that a foreigner can not eat Chinese food or use chopsticks (it was mentioned). I am also starting to suspect that Chinese people think their own cuisine is disgusting (just kidding…). I don’t even eat pizza because it makes me sick! But them going out of their way to order special food for me left me with no option but to eat it because I felt guilty, but it also forced me into a situation where I was proving their point of “see? foreigners love pizza and hate chinese food!” Also, I got super sick from the pizza. Additionally, I don’t like having this divide between me and my co-workers. I’m sure they understand that I didn’t ask for special treatment, but I have to wonder if over time there would be any resentment caused by me constantly being given better treatment than them for the same exact job.

Ok, so I get that Chinese people just really want to be good hosts and make sure I’m taken care of. I get that. On one level it’s quite touching, but mostly it’s just super embarrassing. Nothing makes me happier than when Chinese people just treat me like everyone else. There was this restaurant that I used to go to and when I went in, they’d throw a menu at me and an order pad and say “write your own order down!” Just like they did to every Chinese person who went in there. I didn’t get babied, I wasn’t coddled and they even made fun of how ugly my characters were. I loved it. (My characters are so ugly.)

Another thing that kept happening is something that ALL foreigners have experienced. You open your mouth and say “ni hao” or “xie xie” and the world stops. Every Chinese person in the room is falling over themselves complimenting your AMAZING Mandarin. Even if that’s all you know. At times, the encouragement can be nice, but it can also reach a point where it’s just kind of insulting, even though I KNOW that’s not the intent. Knowing that Chinese people are just trying to be nice when they say things like this hasn’t really kept me from being annoyed by it. I think I finally came up with a comparison that explains why this makes me so uncomfortable: Let’s say you have a small child who goes to kindergarten and then comes home one day and tells you that they have a new teacher at school who teaches Chinese. Your kid then says “ni hao, xie xie, ni hao ma” whatever. Your kid is 5 years old, so you get really excited and you say “Wow! GOOD JOB! You’re so smart!” blah blah whatever people say to little kids who learn something. You’re excited that your kid picked it up so quickly. If we take that same scenario and your kid is an adult who comes home from work or college or whatever and says the same thing, your reaction is probably going to be not so enthusiastic, maybe like “that’s great, keep it up!” And you’ll go on with your day. In fact, you might even wonder if there’s something wrong with your child. Basically, my point is that we have different standards of success for small children and adults. When it comes to foreigners and Mandarin, we all get the 5 year old’s standard of success, which is somewhat insulting. I mean, we all sound like 5 year olds at some point in the learning process, but that doesn’t mean we actually only have the intellectual capability of a 5 year old (in most cases). I think one of the reasons why non-Asian foreigners have such a hard time learning Chinese is because of this. Chinese people won’t raise the bar on us and start expecting more. They don’t tell us when we’ve said something wrong because “awww, she’s trying, that’s cute” and some foreigners I suspect, believe the compliments and don’t realize that Chinese people are just being nice and maybe don’t push themselves as much as they would if Chinese people were less forgiving about it. How many of you have been told “Your Chinese is better than mine!” by a Chinese person? Come on! Who’s going to believe that? I’d almost think they were making fun of me except that most Chinese are simply too nice to do that. Again, even though I know it’s not the intent, I still can’t help but feel a little insulted when a Chinese person freaks out over me saying one word in Chinese. To me, it implies a combination of “we didn’t think you were smart enough to learn this language and we didn’t expect you to respect our culture enough to learn the language.” I think they owe it to themselves to expect that foreigners who come here long term bother to learn the language at least a little.

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A Bit of a Touchy Subject

I have something serious I want to discuss, but before I do that, I want to mention that I added another Chinese language learning resource on my Chinese learning page. It’s the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which maybe everyone else already knew about, but I just discovered and I love it. I’ve been reviewing the basics and re-solidifying my foundation in basic grammar.

Ok, so the thing I want to talk about today is sexual harassment, specifically in China. Like I mentioned in my post yesterday, lots of things change very quickly in China and I think that the nature of sexual harassment is one of those things. During my first time in China from 2003 through 2005, sexual harassment happened, but it wasn’t a regular thing that happened every day the way it seems to be now.

Just to be clear, I am not one of those overly sensitive types who thinks that any guy who says anything or looks at me is sexually harassing me. Like most women, I have way too much experience with the real thing and am very clear on what sexual harassment is. I’ve been sexually harassed in almost every country I’ve visited, so this isn’t anything unique to the Chinese either. I know the difference between a Chinese man looking at me because I’m a person who just happens to be in his field of view and people are naturally interested in one another, or a person who’s maybe just looking to see what I’m wearing, or a person who is simply curious or surprised to see a foreigner. I know what that kind of staring or looking is, I know what it feels like. What I’m talking about is the long, up and down gaze that rests too long on the breasts or butt, sometimes accompanied by a lecherous smirk and/or unnecessary commentary. Some men have gone so far as to touch me without permission, follow me, or even just straight up ask for sex. Just a couple days ago, I ventured outside of central Shanghai and was followed down the street by a man who was commenting on how pretty I am and how big my breasts are, while trying to make me look at him. I went into a subway because I knew there would be security guards down there and he followed me until I passed through the gate (I guess I wasn’t worth the 3 kuai ticket) and he stood outside watching me until I couldn’t see him any longer. It made me nervous and I felt very unsafe. We’ve all seen those videos of horrible things happening to people in China where no one helps other than to record the incident on their phone. What if that guy had decided to attack me right in the subway? Would anyone have helped me? I don’t know, but the fact that I even have to wonder if anyone would help me certainly doesn’t make me feel better about those situations.

I was talking about this with some friends the other day and all of my western female friends had similar stories. Our male friends were incredulous, even a little suspicious that we were exaggerating or somehow misunderstanding the situations. Their reaction, to be honest was a little hurtful. I’ve asked a number of female Chinese friends about these situations and they’ve all said the same thing – that nothing of the sort has ever happened to them, that they’ve never heard of it happening to any of their Chinese friends, and that they didn’t think most Chinese men would behave that way to a Chinese woman. There are probably several reasons for that. So why us Western ladies then? Why do we have to put up with harassment all the time? I’ll tell you why I think it is. We’re probably all thinking the same thing by now, which is that Westerners have a reputation for being “more open” than Chinese people. Western people have sex all the time with whoever they want without any social or emotional consequences. We’re all pretty slutty. How do we know this? From movies and TV, of course! If it happened in Sex and the City, it has to be real, right??

(Sidebar – Many English teachers in China encourage their students to watch American TV and movies to “learn about the culture.” This is a great idea, but only if the student has the ability to think critically about what they’re seeing and interpret it. For example, many Chinese people have the mistaken idea that life in America is like the Die Hard series, everyone has guns, we’re all running around shooting everyone and blowing everything up. Combine that with Sex and the City and we’re doing all of that in Christian Louboutin stilettos. The real take away from American TV and movies is that yes, we’re more open to the idea of seeing violence and sex on screen, but really we just love a good explosion and watching ridiculous high rollers living it up in NYC because most of us will never do that. It’s fantasy!)

However, in spite of the unfair conclusions drawn from American media about how slutty I am, I think there is at least one more culprit. In 2003, it was very fashionable for any and all companies to use white people in their commercials and advertisements. It didn’t matter what the product was, white models were required. There were white people in ads for cars, clothing, restaurants, all varieties of products. Now, I think that many Chinese brands have shifted towards using Chinese models because of pride in their product, pride in their country and pride in Chinese beauty. Obviously, I think this is great. I think it sucks that the whole world seems to be leaning towards one standard of beauty – white, tall, slender, blonde, etc that nearly no one in the world can attain aside from those with Northern European heritage. Anyway, so now that more and more Chinese brands are using Chinese models, more foreign brands have even started to as well. I think that fewer and fewer Chinese are willing to accept the message that “white people like it, so should you!” However, the ads that almost exclusively still use white women and not Asian women are ads that are related to anything of a sexual nature…lingerie or condoms, for example. I was in a store the other day and I noticed that the posters and displays around the store used Asian models, except for the lingerie department where the ads featured white women. I saw a commercial on TV recently that struck me as odd from the beginning, but I couldn’t say why. It showed a white couple in their house, she was making dinner and he was reading the paper (very 1950s, I know) and they sat down to eat, but suddenly, the woman ripped her clothes off (at this point the commercial no longer seemed weird), jumped on the man who then lead her into the bedroom. The commercial turned out to be an ad for Jizbon condoms. What seemed weird was seeing a white woman portrayed as a wholesome housewife, but it quit feeling weird when she was being portrayed the way I was used to seeing white women in China. (Of course, women are also objectified and sexualized in American ads too, but we objectify ALL women, not just white women, which of course, doesn’t make it ok.)

I realized that I had somehow subconsciously become used to seeing white women portrayed only in a very sexual light. If that way of thinking could be unknowingly taken on by me, someone who had only really been subjected to these differences for two years, then how does that affect the attitudes of Chinese people, specifically men towards white women? I’m going to guess that perhaps that subconscious relating of white women and sexuality is much stronger. You know what? I think that really sucks. Not just because now I get to walk around being treated like nothing but a one dimensional sexual being (by some people, not the majority, but enough to make me uncomfortable on a fairly regular basis), but also because these ads criminalize sexuality and sexual behavior. They label it as something “foreign,” “not for Chinese” and thereby take away the right of Chinese women to be overtly sexual if they chose to be without being unfairly labeled in the same way that I am. I believe that a person’s sexuality is theirs and theirs alone to decide when to turn it off and on and how they want to embody it or display it. They should get to do this without judgement and without preconceived notions about how sexual they are or aren’t, or how sexual they should be.

I suppose I live in a fantasy land because as of yet, I don’t know of a single country where this is reality.