My “China Thing”

Summer is over and I have my work visa in hand. I’ll be heading back to Shanghai next week and I’m actually pretty happy about it, primarily for three reasons.

1. I’m bored out of my mind

I live in a small town, far from everything in the US. It’s incredibly hot here and there are sandstorms almost every day, limiting the time one can spend outside. The last friend I had in this town moved away last week, leaving me with my cat and my husband, both of whom are sick of me. My husband is at work 14+ hrs a day anyway, so entertaining me is a huge burden on my poor kitty. I’ve kept myself busy reading, studying Chinese, working out, and listening to courses on iTunes university. I’m ready to go do something and feel useful again.

2. My back hurts!

I have a back injury and now a hamstring injury (thanks a lot, pole dancing instructor) that I haven’t been able to find any solution to other than traditional Chinese massage. I’ve tried physical therapy, chiropractors, western style oily gross rub-down massage (there aren’t any other options such as deep tissue in this crappy town), medicine and acupuncture. At best, those methods offer temporary relief, but most of them are really expensive. They just can’t compete with 60 RMB blind massage. I haven’t had one since I came home and I’m walking like one of those 400 yr old nai nais that spent her whole life carrying heavy buckets of water on a pole across her shoulders.

3. I feel like a weirdo in America.

You know when people ask you about what you’ve been doing in China and you try to explain and about 30 seconds into it, they get that glazed look in their eyes? Yeah, that’s basically every conversation I’ve had since I’ve come home. I blame my husband. He makes me go to parties and stuff (ugh, people) and he introduces me to people by saying “This is my wife, she just finished a master’s degree in Chinese!” I know he’s trying to help and he’s proud of me, but it just doesn’t go well. WHY CAN’T I JUST STAY HOME WITH THE CAT?!?! I simply try to avoid the topic now. People ask me what I do and I say something like “I’m in between jobs right now” and then ask them what they do. Everyone would rather talk about themselves anyway, right? The few people who try to seriously understand whatever it is that I do, can’t really make heads or tails of it because they don’t know anything about China other than what’s in the news and we all know that’s not exactly putting China in the best light. They can’t (won’t?) understand why I would go there, much less keep going back. I hear questions like “But isn’t the food really unsafe? What do you eat there?” or “How do you breath with all that smog?!” These are valid questions, but even though these issues aren’t the end of the world for me, it’s hard to make people understand why I keep going back. The other reaction I often get is even worse than the usual indifference/confusion – and that is when people think I’m just showing off. I get that mostly from people I went to high school with. Most of my former high school classmates are still at home (small town, population less than 10,000), have a bunch of kids, make minimum wage and/or are on meth. When you run into a person like that and they ask you what you’re doing with your life, it’s pretty damn hard not to sound like you’re bragging. However, I feel like they shouldn’t ask that question of the former Honor Society president and women’s cross country team captain (I know, I know, I was hot shit) and expect to get an answer that’s going to make them feel better about themselves.

At the end of the day, my “China thing” (as it’s often referred to) is none of anyone’s damn business and it really has nothing to do with anyone else, but I just hate never knowing how to deal with these conversations. I like the fact that I don’t have to have this conversation in China with other expats. There’s an unspoken understanding and you rarely get asked about it, much less judged for it. My Chinese friends and my expat friends have more context for understanding my life, which makes it easier for me. I don’t have to go into minute details to make myself understood and I can speak Chinglish. I guess I’m just lazy. No, that’s not all it is…I don’t like feeling like I don’t belong and in a lot of ways, I don’t belong in America anymore. Maybe it would be easier if I was staying here for a few years, but I’m not ready to find out.

Short Haired Dictionaries

The town of Yuxi.  It didn't look this good when I lived there.

The town of Yuxi. It didn’t look this good when I lived there.

When I went to China for the first time in 2003, I was 19.  I was pretty stupid as most 19 year old girls are and I dated some really inappropriate guys, but for the two years I was in China, I had the somewhat unique experience of dating inappropriate Chinese guys.  These guys weren’t inappropriate because they were Chinese, they were inappropriate for the usual reasons – age, socio-economic status, mis-matched personalities, and a few were just plain bad people.  I believe that with hard work, cultural differences can be overcome and adjusted for, but part of my problem as a new expat to China was a willingness to write off just about anything as “cultural differences.”  Some things are just not going to work between two people no matter where you are.

Winter Poplar-

Winter Poplar and I met at an English corner.  He is a member of the Hani minority group.  We hit it off immediately, even though his English wasn’t great and my Chinese was atrocious.  He was the first Chinese friend I made.  We became attached at the hip.  When he got off work, he would come straight to my house and we would eat dinner together, or go to his mom and dad’s house, or he would help me with my homework, it didn’t matter, we had a great time doing anything.  We went on vacation together a couple of times and unlike any of the Chinese guys that came later, he never tried to make a move on me.  I assumed it was because of the Chinese tendency towards 保守 and didn’t really question it.  My friends began speculating whether or not he was gay.  Welp, long story short, he was gay.  When he finally told me, it was such a shock…I felt like I’d been strung along and was really, really hurt.  I needed some time off.  We didn’t talk for a few months and during that time I had a chance to process it and realized that I was probably the first person he’d told because he’d just realized it himself.  You can’t really be mad about that.  I think he had given it an honest effort, but gay is gay.  10 years later, we are still good friends.  We constantly email, text and call each other.  He’s come to visit me a few times from where he lives now near Wuhan and earlier this summer when I was getting ready to fly home from Shanghai, his crazy ass made a trip to Shanghai just to 送 me to the airport.  I love that guy like the brother I never had.

The Slickster-

The Slickster was a member of the Hui minority group…about 12 years older than me and a friend of a “friend.”  My other expat friends and I called him the Slickster because he was always dressed in all black and had his hair slicked back with a lot of gel.  He wasn’t a bad looking dude.  Our mutual acquaintance, Nick had gone to middle school with this guy and The Slickster had told Nick (who owned the only western cafe in town) that he was interested in meeting some western girls.  So Nick called me up and arranged a meeting.  I didn’t question The Slickster’s motives in wanting to meet western girls (I hadn’t yet realized that there were motives), but probably because my own weren’t so great.  I wanted to date a Chinese guy so he could teach me Chinese!  I wanted my own short haired dictionary.  The Slickster and I went out a few times.  He talked a lot about how he wanted to start a business in Yunnan (where we were living) and then move to America.  I didn’t yet realize how I might be a cog in his plan.  Not long after, The Slickster asked me for something like USD $30k as an investment.  Being a 19 year old student, I didn’t have it.  He didn’t believe me and we had an argument.  He left angrily and then showed up drunk at my apartment around 1am that night for a booty call.  I didn’t put out and that was the last I heard of The Slickster.

The Bouncer-

The Bouncer worked at a club that we frequented.  He was HUGE!  Probably 6 ft tall and really bulky.  This was important to me because at 5’7″ and kinda chubby at the time, it was hard for me to find Chinese guys who were bigger than me.  He was 35 and had been in the Army (later I would realize that was a red flag).  We went on a few dates and he would sometimes ask me to come sit with him in his rented room while he finished smoking his water pipe.  I noticed that there was women’s clothing and shoes in his closet.  I asked about this and he told me it belonged to his sister (why would he lie about that, right?).  I paid for everything when we went out.  I assumed this was a cultural thing (it isn’t).  The Bouncer had also at one point asked me for a huge chunk of money to invest in a coal mine in Baoshan.  Again, we had a fight when I told him I didn’t have it.  It wasn’t long before he made up an excuse to stay at my house overnight and tried to sleep with me.  I rejected him partly because of his shady behavior, partly because he smelled funny.   A few weeks later I received a late night phone call from a crying woman wanting to know why my number was in her husband’s phone (along with some sleazy texts he’d sent me).  The Chinese often use “wife” or “husband” to refer to their boyfriends or girlfriends, but given that this dude was 35, he was probably married and was trying to cheat on his lao po with me.  I should have known something was up when I realized he had two cell phones – that is usually a pretty good sign.

Cloud Boy-

I met Cloud Boy at a club, which as everyone knows is a great place to meet serious, long-term partners.  Cloud boy was closer to my age, about 23, but he was what we now call 农民工, or a migrant worker (that wasn’t a widely used term 10 yrs ago).  He was from a very poor village in southern Yunnan and had come to Yuxi (not a huge city) to find work and opportunities.  He had found a job in a department store selling electronics for about 300 RMB a month, which at the time worked out to about $38/month.  If that’s better than what he would have been earning in his home town, then you can probably imagine the abject poverty he grew up in.   Cloud Boy was super cute and had a great sense of humor.  Unlike a lot of Chinese people, he caught on to the American sense of humor and was able to see the hilarity of normal Chinese situations and how they seemed to us.  I really enjoyed spending time with Cloud Boy.  I think Cloud Boy enjoyed dating me too, but not necessarily for the same reasons.  I think he liked going out with me and my expat friends because we’d foot the bill, I think he liked taking me out with his friends because of the serious 面子 (face) he’d get for dating a foreigner, and I think he had really built up in his mind what sex with a foreigner would be like.  Maybe he watched a lot of porn, I don’t know.  In any event, it wasn’t great. And I know what some people are thinking and no, the size was not the issue.  It was plain and simple a lack of any real connection and also some body consciousness on my part.  I wasn’t at my slimmest during this time and Cloud Boy was super skinny…he was 5’11” and weighed probably 120 lbs.  We broke up soon after and he went back to his hometown.  It was fun while it lasted, but Cloud Boy made me see more clearly what a Chinese person possibly had to gain by dating a foreigner.

There were a handful of other extremely short lived relationships in the mix.  They typically ended when I either refused to provide a monstrous sum of money for some business investment or didn’t want to sleep with the guy.  It would seem that all Chinese men think that American/western women are all whores (thanks, Hollywood) and have mountains of US dollars laying around that we don’t know what to do with.  However, I wasn’t exactly dating quality people.  There’s something to be said for the Chinese saying  门当户对, “to be well matched in social and economic status.”  I’m not saying that all poor, uneducated people in China are gold diggers just looking for a ticket to America, but I probably would have been more successful if I’d been dating guys who had social backgrounds similar to mine.  I did date one guy very briefly and he had graduated from college (I hadn’t yet, but would) and had a good job.  He had traveled abroad and spoke English well.  He didn’t expect me to behave like a Chinese girl (aka he liked my independence) and never railed on me for my weight.  He had just purchased a house and was looking to get married sooner rather than later.  When I met him, I was 21 and he ended things because I was too young and not ready to settle down, which in all fairness, is a pretty good reason.  Certainly better than being dumped because I wouldn’t give him money or didn’t turn out to be the porn star he was hoping for.  I learned a lot from all of this and was definitely exposed to a side of China that not many foreigners experience.  My Chinese got a lot better too.  The bottom line is that people who are dating across cultures shouldn’t let bad behavior continue under the guise of “cultural differences.”  Cultural differences are things like celebrating different holidays, eating different food, or different religious beliefs.  Cultural differences are not generally things that when in your own country, you would classify as “being a bad person.”   Maybe everyone else already knows this, but at 19 I sure didn’t.