One of the things on my “40 Before 40” list was going to an Ikea store in China. I’ve heard all about the madness that occurs, nongmin gong sleeping in the beds, nai nais showing up and chilling in a living room to chat all day, etc. It sounded really weird and like it would be one of those bizarre experiences that could only happen here. For comparison’s sake, I went to an Ikea in the US earlier this summer. I’d never been to one before, but I found the experience truly rage inducing. The way they have the store set up so you have to walk through EVERYTHING and then you have to find a way to remember what you wanted so that you can go on an expedition through the MASSIVE warehouse to find it. God help you if you forget where you parked. So the store itself isn’t my cup of tea, but what about the people in it? I didn’t see anyone sleeping in a display bed or people relaxing in living room displays as if they lived there. However, I did notice that literally no parent in the store even tried to control their kids. Anyone under the age of 15 was running around like they were in a giant play room, which I guess means they felt at home, which I guess means Ikea achieved their objective with their cozy little displays. I don’t know, but it pissed me off. My experience in American Ikea made me more scared than curious about going to Chinese Ikea. I thought that if a handful (relatively speaking) of Americans acting like assholes in a store could make it so painful to be there, then what happens when you take that handful and multiply it times 1000? That and the fact that it’s still really hot and humid here, so I figured an Ikea filled to the brim with smelly people would make it that much awesomer. I was scared to go. Because I don’t have a death wish, I knew I would not be going to Ikea on a weekend. I made a friend agree to go with me and I had wanted to go in the afternoon, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so crowded with people at work, but my friend has a job. She was’t able to get off work and meet me at Ikea until 9pm. As it turns out, that, my friends is the secret. There were about 50 people in the entire store, most of them employees and the rest were mostly foreigners who clearly were in on the secret of how to avoid a shit show at Chinese Ikea. It was amazing. The walk ways were empty, we were able to rush right through the displays (pro tip- I’d looked online and already knew exactly what I wanted to buy) and went straight to the warehouse to get the things I needed. I am now the proud owner of a memory foam mattress top and life is good. I kind of feel like I cheated though. I’m sure I’ll have to go back eventually and karma will get me back.
Not so many years ago, it was common for Americans to use the “N” word to refer to African Americans. I saw the movie “The Butler” over the summer when I was back in the states and that word was used frequently throughout the movie. The first time I heard it, it caught me off guard and I physically flinched in reaction to hearing that word, which has become incredibly taboo in a relatively short amount of time. By the end of the movie, I barely noticed it anymore. The interesting thing about the “N” word is that back in the day when white people used it, it was just the word that you used to refer to black people. White people themselves (according to my grandparents) didn’t think it was offensive at all, that’s just what you called them. Now, using that word would likely get you punched in the face (at least where I’m from), unless you yourself are black – then it’s totally cool to call yourself or your friends by the “N” word. I don’t care, I get it – it’s that whole “nobody can make fun of us except us” mentality and I can appreciate that. Where am I going with all of this? I think anyone who has been in China for awhile probably already knows. The term “lao wai” (老外) is in many ways, similar to the “N” word. I would never argue that “lao wai” is anywhere near as offensive, since as you can see, I dare to write it out instead of referring to it as the “L” word. Never mind the fact that lao wai have never been forced into slavery in China, or had to endure extreme deprivation of human rights and then go through the Civil Rights Movement. I can’t say that I relate to any of that. I believe the two terms are similar in that many Chinese people who throw it around will insist that it’s not offensive and that it’s just a cute/silly word for “foreigner” IN SPITE of the fact that many of us are actually offended by it to varying degrees. I find the term rather offensive and here’s why.
If you think about the circumstances in which Chinese people use the term “lao wai” versus “wai guo ren” – foreigner (外国人) or “wai guo peng you” -foreign friend (外国朋友), I believe you will see a pattern emerge. I just sat through a 2 hour lecture on research methods in a room of mixed Chinese and international students and the lecturer continuously referred to us as “lao wai” when making assumptions that we couldn’t understand him, or that we didn’t understand China. He talked about sensitive research topics and used the term “lao wai” to mention the fact that many foreigners come to China and because they don’t know anything, they get into trouble when trying to research things they don’t really understand. The foreigners in the room all took this to be quite condescending, especially since the entire premise of our school is cultural exchange and has pretty stiff language requirements to get into. The situation that he kept using the word in assumed a relatively high level of ignorance, especially given that we were sitting in a room located in….CHINA. However, any formal event – a graduation or other ceremony, the speakers will always use the terms “wai guo ren” or “wai guo peng you” because they’re trying to be polite and formal. Other times that you may hear the word “lao wai” are when for example random people are laughing and pointing at you on the street or when someone is really trying to emphasize the differences between “we Chinese” and foreigners. People tend to avoid using “lao wai” when they think we understand them as well, which I believe means that they are (subconsciously?) acknowledging the fact that maybe we do know something about China or whatever is being discussed.
Another reason why I find this word to be offensive is because you almost never hear it used to refer to foreigners of Asian descent. Granted, there are other terms for Japanese people or Koreans, but those words are deliberate and it is no secret that they are meant to be offensive. When I was studying in Kunming, I once had someone ask me “how many lao wai are in your class?” I answered “8” because that’s how many people were in my class and we were all foreigners. The person pressed further by asking “NO, I mean how many lao wai…like you?” I was confused and again answered “8” and tried to explain that everyone in my class was foreign. The person became frustrated and asked me what countries my classmates were from an I answered “Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan” and was then informed that I was in fact, the only lao wai in the class. In case you didn’t know, lao wai is only for white people and black people. I personally think this is because in the minds of the Chinese, we are so much more different from them than other Asians. Other Asians at least come from roughly the same region, they have Buddhism, Confucian backgrounds, etc, so they aren’t REAL “lao wai.”
For anyone who watches Chinese TV or news, or reads newspapers, you would again, notice key differences in when speakers use the terms “lao wai” or “wai guo ren/peng you.” In sitcoms or soap operas where the foreigner is filling the role of “bungling idiot foreigner who can’t do anything for themselves” (usually the case), the word will more than likely be “lao wai.” On news programs, due to the formality, it’s usually “wai guo ren.” In newspapers it depends on what said foreigner has done. If it was something negative, like when that British guy tried to rape a Chinese girl on the street about 18 months ago, the headlines were all about the “lao wai” who thinks he can rape Chinese women on the street. When it’s something positive or even neutral, it’s going to be “wai guo ren.” A few weeks ago, a couple of American women intervened when an irate passenger on a bus began beating up the bus driver because he was angry about the traffic and how slow they were going. The other Chinese on the bus, did nothing (well, someone recorded it with their phone) and the two “wai guo peng you” held the man down and lectured him on why it’s not ok to beat up bus drivers and comforted the bus driver until police got there. I just did a quick google search of “wai guo ren” and “lao wai” using Chinese characters and the difference in results (text and pictures) backs this theory up. Interesting, yes?
Last piece of evidence- Next time you see Chinese tourists in your home country, call them “lao wai” and see what they do. They don’t like it. If it’s not an offensive term used only for white people or black people, then what’s the problem, Chinese people? I’m not sure I understand…
I often will ask Chinese people not to use “lao wai” and they frequently get kind of defensive about it, saying things like “What? it’s not a big deal, I didn’t mean anything by it, don’t be so sensitive.” I’m sure white Americans would have said the same thing 60 years ago (or bitch slapped someone for back talking). Sometimes when I bring this subject up, other foreigners will also tell me that I’m being too sensitive. I think they’re actually missing the point and not understanding the true connotation of the word and I also think that more people should insist that the word not be used. However, similar to the “N” word, I think it’s one of those things that only people who are members of the group can use casually to refer to one another.
Liu De Hua, also known as Andy Lau is a 52 year old Chinese (Hong Kong) man who can turn crowds of grown ass women into blubbering school girls. I’m no exception. I’ve watched most of his movies, but haven’t actually listened to a lot of his music because you can’t see his abs when you listen to his music, unless you’re at one of his concerts…oh, funny you should mention Liu De Hua concerts because I went to one last night! Liu De Hua did his “Always” show this weekend and the only reason I knew about this was because I was procrastinating on my homework one night a few weeks ago and got on Douban to see what was going on around town. The tickets were too expensive for the likes of me – by the time I found out about the concert the only tickets left were 1680 RMB. Last night, two friends and I decided (well, I bullied them into it) to head out to the concert and see what the situation was. It was a mad house! There were hundreds (thousands?) of people trying to talk their way into the concert, there were tons of scalpers selling mostly fake tickets, people crying because they couldn’t get in and the cops were rounding up scalpers and people with fake tickets right and left. It was crazy. There was only one main door into the stadium and it was on lock down, there were dozens of cops guarding it and they were in no mood for joking around. I talked to a police officer about the scalpers to confirm that the tickets they were selling were fake and he told me that not only were they fake, but I might get taken in if I tried to get in with one. I wasn’t going to pay a scalper anyway, they all wanted 1000 RMB or more for the tickets. We milled about for a bit, but found out that the concert was sold out already. Chinese people were surprised to see us there and kept asking one another “老外也喜欢刘德华吗?” (Foreigners like Liu De Hua too?) We decided to try a different door where maybe the security was more lax. We walked around to the back of the stadium and found 3 cops standing around laughing and joking. There was a Chinese girl with them who had paid 900 RMB for a fake ticket and was trying to get them to let her in anyway. She was close to tears when I walked up and started talking to the cops about the concert and wondering if there was any way that I might possibly be able to get some tickets. The oldest cop, a guy probably in his late 50s said he would check on it for me. At this point I kind of felt bad because the Chinese girl had been there first and they wouldn’t help her. The only reason he was willing to use his guanxi to get tickets for me is because I’m a foreigner. However, I consider this to be compensation for the bullshit I put up with every day (aka being stared at constantly and being treated like a free traveling English class). My new best friend, Mr. Jingcha was able to secure us two tickets. We graciously accepted. Mr. Jingcha then asked for my phone number and concessions had to be made at this point, so I took one for the team and gave him my number. He then loaded us up in his cop car and drove us to the front entrance where we picked up our tickets. We tried again to get the cops at the front to let all of us in, despite only having two tickets, but they weren’t having it. Two of us went in and our other friend waited out front while we continued to search for a way to get him in. Mr. Jingcha texted me and said he was going back for our buddy and ended up taking him on a ride along where they picked up what they thought was a drunk guy, threw him in the back seat with my friend and then he turned out to be a mentally disabled person who was distraught over having purchased a fake ticket and was in fact, not a drunk. They took him back to the station and made my buddy smoke cigarettes with them until the head cop came down and gave him another ticket they had scrounged up for him. All 3 of us managed to make it in for at least the last 45 minutes of the concert for free. Liu De Hua was amazing and the stage, props and dancers were all wonderful too. He made a great speech at the end of his performance about how much he loved all of his fans and said “No matter where you are, no matter where I am, my love will always be at your side.” Liu De Hua is the nicest guy ever. Everyone was going crazy. The Chinese fans were hilarious. Everyone had glowing mouse ears, glowing watches and glow sticks that they were waving around. At one point in his speech, Liu De Hua said “There are people more handsome than me” and all the girls shouted “NO THERE AREN’T!” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t join in. There were people there of all ages, from elderly people to children, and everyone was really into it, including all the dudes. Liu De Hua really does appeal to all age groups. At the end of the night, as if it wasn’t awesome enough already, we got concert tees for 20 RMB!
My new best friend, Mr. Jingcha has been texting and hitting me up on weixin all day. This could be a problem. I kind of thought this might happen (not my first trip to the rodeo), but it’s always a little complicated. He now wants to treat us all to dinner and earlier today he asked me to teach him English. I certainly don’t want to teach English to anyone or be anyone’s 小三 (mistress). This is a delicate situation and the American in me doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. The Chinese in me tells me to just ignore the guy since I never promised anything in return. I guess I’ll probably just bring some big dude along with me to dinner some night and say he’s my husband (since my real husband is thousands of miles away). Hopefully that should put an end to it. I don’t mind helping someone out and giving them some face every now and again, but it’s tricky when you don’t know whether or not they’re a creep monster.
Most people in China have this week off in honor of National Day, the founding of the PRC on Oct 1, 1949. Many people choose to travel within China during this week, but anyone with common sense does what I did – flee the country. Trying to travel in China during mass holidays is something that I find to be more and more intolerable the older I get. I just can’t bring myself to do it anymore. As such, I booked a ticket to Seoul, Korea for the week with the dual purpose of visiting my little sister and doing some research for my thesis.
Korea keeps catching me off guard. I’ve been here several times before, but after being in China for so long and coming here and still being surrounded by Asian faces (racist, I know), I still can’t get used to the fact that the people are so different. I took the subway into Seoul for a meeting the other day and it was a long trip, about 2.5 hours each way. Not one weird thing happened to me the entire time. I got on the subway and read quietly without being disturbed by anyone wanting to practice their Engrish, no one relieved themselves on the train, no weirdos came to stand next to me to read over my shoulder or touch me, no one stared at me, just basically everyone acted normal. Not a single person was weird about the fact that I’m not from around here. For anyone who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in China, the fact that I’m even writing this probably doesn’t make any sense. Let’s put it into perspective. The day before I left China to fly here, I was approached by 5 random people who wanted to practice Engrish with me, a guy sat next to me on the subway and stared intently right at my face for his entire ride, a woman followed me around a convenience store to see what I was buying, and a group of children, egged on by their parents laughed and pointed at the laowai just minding her business walking down the street. That’s what I mean by “acting weird” about foreigners. I don’t live in a small town and there are tons of foreigners here, so I’m really not sure why we’re not over the thrill of white people yet. Another thing about Korea, when I go into a restaurant with my sister they don’t try to ask you in English whether or not you’re ok with chopsticks. They always try Korean first and when that fails, they switch to English. No one has even tried to give us forks instead of chopsticks. The attitude seems to be “Well, you’re in Korea, so maybe you know some Korean and have learned to use chopsticks” instead of in China where the attitude most of the time is “there is no way a white person knows our language or can use chopsticks because white people don’t understand China!” Everywhere that we’ve visited, people have always approached us with an open mind about how the communication was going to happen. In China, when you go into a store or something, all of the employees do this thing where they look around in a panic thinking “oh shit, I don’t remember any English!” and sometimes they ignore you altogether because there is just no way that communication is going to happen. I like how no matter what, Korean people will engage you and do their best to understand and help answer your questions. I got confused about the subway the other day when I was trying to get back from Seoul and I would stop random people to try and ask and usually I could make myself understood, but some people would pull out their phones, open some translating app and give it to me to type in what I was trying to say. They would read the translation and then type in their answer and give it to me to read the English. I was honestly quite shocked that anyone would actually take the time to do that. Some people would even walk me to where I was supposed to be (I got lost a lot) and then go on their way. In China, it’s easier for me to ask directions since I can speak Chinese, but even given that, sometimes when I approach a person, before I can even say anything, they wave me off and walk away while saying “I don’t speak English!”
I’ve really enjoyed every trip I’ve made to Korea, I love the food, the culture, there’s so much to do and see here, but I think my favorite thing about Korea is the people. It’s not entirely fair to compare China and Korea perhaps, but it’s hard not to. I live in China and deal with a lot of weirdness from the people every single day and then I come here and it’s like I’m just another person in the crowd. If I had to guess, the difference comes from the fact that foreigners, specifically Americans have had a pretty strong presence in Korea since the early 1950s. Old people then maybe would have been weird about it, but their kids and grandchildren all grew up with foreigners hanging around as the norm. Our presence is seen virtually everywhere with all of the military bases. I’ve visited the Korean country side and even there, no one was weird about it (I also think that it’s considered rude to stare in Korean culture, unlike in China). Whereas in China, foreigners were mostly kicked out of the country during the Qing Dynasty and we didn’t start making a solid appearance again until the early 80s when China opened up again. So that means that the first generation to really grow up with foreigners around are the people aged about 30 and under, everyone else remembers a time when we weren’t allowed into the country and when there was actually propaganda against the West, especially the US. You could even argue that there wasn’t a widespread presence of foreigners (outside of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai) until the 90s. If Korea is any indication, then we should expect the Chinese to stop being weirded out by us in about 50 years. I’d like to see the day when that happens!
Expats from western countries typically fall into two basic categories in China. The first category is the newbs, people who haven’t been here for too long. They’re usually so excited to be here and blinded by the image of China that they’ve had in their heads for so long that they can’t see anything negative about the country. Nothing about living here annoys them because everything is cute or quaint or it’s “just their culture” and they’re eager to accept anything, no matter how gross or different from their own country. Then something happens…I don’t know when it happens, it depends on the person, but it’s like a chink in the armor appears and it starts with one little complaint like “I can’t stand people spitting everywhere!” and grows until this bright eyed, bushy tailed lover of China moves into category 2 and will openly admit to the things here that bother him or her. They may even have days where the thought of leaving their apartment and dealing with outside just seems like an insurmountable task, so they just stay in. It’s ok. This place is stressful! I know I have days like that and after a day of holing up in my room, watching American TV and not dealing with the chaos outside, I feel ready to handle it again. One of the things that often is a huge contributing factor to having an “I hate China day” is how inconsiderate people are out on the street. Yesterday, I was trying to exit a narrow door into a lobby and there was a young man walking ahead of me. Ahead I could see a 400 year old Chinese man slowly coming towards us, heading to the door and he was just about to step through it when the young man ahead of me saw the old man, quickly evaluated how slow he was going and realized that it might waste 4 seconds of his time if he had to stop and wait for him to go through the door first and instead, he sped up and barreled through the door, shoving into this old man so he could go first. The old man didn’t say anything. He caught his balance and then he looked up and saw me coming and he physically braced himself as if he thought I was going to be next to slam into him. He shut his eyes and tightened up his body and stood there waiting for impact. This is a man who is used to this. Kinda funny considering how the Chinese always pat themselves on the back for how much respect they have for their elders. Obviously, I didn’t run into the guy. I stopped and waved him through the door and he smiled at me and said “thank you” about 20 times. It wasn’t anything worth being thanked for, it’s called being a person.
I see crap like this all the time. People getting off an escalator and just stopping at the top to check their phone while 100 people behind them try to get around him and go on with their day, a guy who pulls his bike out into the sidewalk and completely blocks oncoming foot traffic while he makes a call or digs through his bag, cars parked on the sidewalks, people cutting each other off in cars, not watching for pedestrians on their motorcycles, cutting in line, not looking where they spit (I’ve been on the receiving end of that more times than I care to count), the people who push and shove their way onto an elevator or subway before anyone else has had the chance to get off…this list could go on for miles and this is all stuff I see every day within the first 50 meters of leaving my apartment. It’s incredibly frustrating to see and deal with every day. It’s hard not to sometimes think “WTF is wrong with these people??” Collective society, my ass. A friend and I had a long discussion the other day and we came up with two possible theories to explain this behavior.
1. The Ignorance is Bliss Theory-
Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up in a decent sized city in China? It’s soo noisy! Construction, cars honking, people yelling, etc. You can literally never get a moment’s peace and quiet. There is always noise. Also, it’s incredibly crowded. Every where you go, you’re jam packed up against 2000 other people – walking, in the subway, in stores, eating at a restaurant. You are almost constantly in physical contact with strangers. I suspect that this crowded, noisy state isn’t exactly the condition that’s most natural to mankind. I believe that people need peace and quiet and time to themselves to just be and that is completely impossible here. I think that maybe the guy who just puts in his headphones and goes meandering down the street, cutting people off, not looking who he might bump into and getting in the way of other pedestrians or cyclists is perhaps subconsciously trying to achieve a sense of being alone, artificially experiencing a lack of crowding or noise (other than his music), it’s perhaps a way of regrouping similar to my “I hate China days” when I just stay in my apartment and refuse to come out.
2. The Great Depression Theory
My friend whom I was discussing this with doesn’t buy into the above theory at all. He thinks that the seemingly rude behavior is learned behavior passed down from the generations who experienced the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural revolution and periods of famine and shortage that were all too common just a few decades ago in China. I think he may have something here. We both discussed how we had picked up habits from our parents who had learned them from their parents who started doing said habit during the Great Depression…now it’s just something we do because “it’s how it’s always been done” whereas our grandparents began doing things a certain way out of necessity. It’s possible that some of the rude behavior is borne out of habits picked up from older generations who had to compete for goods and services out of necessity, when not getting what you needed meant starvation for your family. I think that this is a pretty interesting theory, but I suspect that may not be the case for everyone. My husband’s family has always been rather well-off and for them, the Great Depression was a thing happening to other people. Some of the habits that I have learned from my family who suffered terribly during that time, he finds really strange. In fact, I hadn’t even known that anything I was doing wasn’t the norm in every household until we began living together and he finally asked me about it (these habits mostly consist of reusing things that most people would consider disposable and tricks to extend the life of produce or even use it after it’s gone bad). So, the rude behavior can’t be learned behavior for every single person, since there were families who had it quite good during those harsh times and there was no need to compete for some families. I think that the most likely explanation is some combination of our two theories, plus the fact that there are just so damn many people here (especially since the population booms that happened mostly during the 70s and 80s) that people don’t see how being the one considerate person (if everyone else is still looking out for themselves) will possibly get them anywhere. It won’t. We’ve probably all seen that new foreigner who didn’t want to shove people to get off the subway and missed their stop. You have to be a bit of a rude asshole to get anything done around here. It’s too bad that everyone can’t just agree to stop cutting in line and shoving their way onto the subway before letting people off because in reality, being polite actually saves everyone time and makes everything more efficient when simple stuff like waiting in line at the bank isn’t a war zone. Just my two cents. Not that anyone asked.
I can’t remember the first time I took an international flight, but I do know that they get more unbearable each time…probably all the cut backs on airline amenities and services in recent years have something to do with that, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly that I’m losing patience with the whole process. Flights scheduled at ridiculous hours, showing up to the airport super early to deal with those stupid automated check in machines that never work and the airport security that just keeps getting more and more invasive…ugh, the list goes on. I just completed the trip from the American South West to Shanghai yesterday and when I left the airport I just couldn’t handle the thought of dealing with the crowded subway with luggage so I took a taxi. The first thing the driver said to me wasn’t “Where are you going?” it was “What happened to you?” That is a clear indication that I looked as terrible as I felt. Originally my flight was going to include a direct flight to Shanghai from Seattle, but in my infinite wisdom, I had purchased a new rolling camera bag for all of my gear and it turned out to be much bigger than advertised (not carry on size) and the first leg of my trip was going to be on a small aircraft into a regional airport. The attendant and I had a heated discussion about whether or not I should check a back with roughly $15,000 worth of photography equipment in it and long story short, she ended up booking me a whole new itinerary that routed me through Tokyo via Atlanta, before flying on to Shanghai. It was a much longer trip, but I really had no other 办法.
Part of the reason why I was willing to do this is kinda mean…I dread flying with Chinese people. There, I said it. Chinese people love 热闹, which to me translates as “chaotic, noisy, difficult to tolerate.” They seem to view international flights as a 13 hour party in the sky. They tend to shout to one another across the plane, get up and walk around to randomly strike up conversations or watch movies over your shoulder, and let their children run wild and make as much noise as they want. In short, it’s not peaceful and you’re not going to get a lot of sleep or reading done. Japanese people on the other hand are kind of the opposite, they tend to be extremely quiet and aren’t ones for small talk, so I thought that being routed through Tokyo was going to result in a much happier flight for me. You can probably tell already that I was horribly mistaken. I lived in Japan for two years and only heard Japanese children cry on two occasions. I don’t know how Japanese parents do that, but apparently the only Japanese parents who didn’t get the memo were on my flight. They had this horrible demon child that cried non-stop the whole way. What really got me was that it’s parents simply put on their Bose noise canceling headphones and went to sleep! They obviously knew that their stupid baby was going to be a problem and were definitely looking out for number one. I had to keep reminding myself that karma is a bitch.
On the flip side, I’ve had some funny experiences flying with Chinese people. My last trip home I was seated next to this older couple who didn’t speak English. They looked very mainland…the lady had super permed hair that had been dyed that orangey color that happens when Asians try to go blonde and she was wearing this crazy floral pantsuit with all of the colors and fake Nikes. Her husband was a pretty typical Chinese man…pants pulled up to his armpits, white socks with dark trousers and he tried to smoke on the plane. They told me that their son lived in Seattle and they were going to visit him. When the stewardess passed out the customs forms, they were only in English and I could see that they were going to have some trouble. I let them sweat it for a few minutes. They were looking around to see what everyone else was doing and they pulled out their passports and were asking each other how to spell their names in pinyin. I finally offered to help and filled out the forms for them. They were so grateful that they kept trying to give me all of their food for the rest of the flight. They tried to give me some stuff from their luggage too. It made me wonder if they hadn’t expected Americans to be helpful or something. I felt like I owed it to them since I very clearly remember the first time I came to China and with the language barrier, everything was hard. I needed to exchange money one time and had no idea how to communicate that. The only reason I got it done was because one of the bank employees called their friend who could speak English and she left her job to come to the bank to help me. The least I could do was help fill out some simple forms for this elderly couple that was in the same position I’d been in 10 years prior.
Another time I was seated with a Chinese woman who was probably about 40 years old. No matter how far in advance I request a vegetarian meal or how many times I confirm it online, the airlines (except United) always “lose” my request. When they started the meal service on this flight the stewardess tried to plop some beef mush down in front of me and I asked for my vegetarian meal instead. The stewardesses on this flight were all American, as in, white people. I obviously wasn’t having any trouble communicating with them, but my seat mate took up my vegetarian cause for me. When the stewardess took too long coming back with the right meal, the Chinese lady began harassing all of the stewardesses on my behalf, demanding that they bring me my vegetarian meal. She did this in English. At the next meal service, before it even began, she was already up looking for a stewardess to remind them that I needed a vegetarian meal and that they better not try to give me any meat. It was so weird, but effective. Even though the airline hadn’t bothered preparing any vegetarian meals, after the first time no one tried to give me a meat dish again. I imagine that it wasn’t worth the grief they would have gotten from my seat mate. I wish she was on all of my flights with me. I still don’t know what her end game was.
I think I need to invest in some noise canceling headphones or hurry up and get a real job again so I can fly business class.
“Are you Chinese?” is a question I actually get asked somewhat frequently. It just happened today. I have blondish hair and blue eyes, so at first this seems like a really stupid question, right? Actually, it’s not. Most of the people who ask me this question are other Americans I meet when I’m home in the states. Maybe repairmen who come into my house and see all of the Chinese themed decor or someone who heard that I’m getting a Master’s Degree in China…The reason it’s not a stupid question is because if you look around a typical city in the US, you’re going to see white people, black people, Asians, Middle-Easterners, Indians, Hispanics, etc etc. Chances are, most of these people are also Americans. They may wear traditional ethic dress or even have an accent or speak a language other than English, but there’s a solid chance that their passport is an American passport. I think most Americans, when seeing someone who looks different from themselves don’t immediately think “a foreigner!” Foreigners are a little harder to distinguish in America and many people don’t realize that this isn’t the norm in many other countries, especially in China. The Americans who can look at me and think in all seriousness that I might be Chinese are simply assuming that our crazy mess of ethnicities and cultures is something that can be found in any country. Maybe it speaks to a certain degree of open-mindedness when Americans ask me that question. Or ignorance. I don’t know.
What about when Chinese people ask me that question? That’s also happened to me a few times. I think that there are a couple possible explanations for this. Maybe it’s simply a conversation starter, a less direct way of asking “what country are you from?” Or maybe as in at least one case for sure, the Chinese people who ask me if I’m Chinese are assuming that I am one of China’s 55 (according to the CCP) ethnic minorities, such as the Tatar or Russian minority groups located in Xinjiang or Mongolia. I work in the marketing department of an international real estate developer and I spent a week working at our company booth at one of the local malls. Watching the reactions of Chinese people upon realizing that I was there to sell them a house was quite funny. Most of them assumed immediately that I was a foreigner, but there were a handful who approached me and asked if I was from Xinjiang or which minority group I was a member of. The thing is, that’s a completely reasonable question and maybe one that should be asked more often. There are Chinese people who look like me. I’ve seen them with my own eyes when I visited Xinjiang. There were blonde people, redheads, people with green eyes and blue eyes and they were all technically Chinese. If you took those people and put them in modern western dress (instead of the ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, etc clothing most of them wore), one could easily think that they were looking at another foreigner and not a Chinese national. This experience at the booth in the mall really made me think about how hard it might be to be a member of one of China’s ethnic minorities who’s facial features aren’t what most people consider to be “Chinese.” I assume that they would be greeted at the train station by a bunch of cabbies yelling “Hallo! Hallo! You want-uh taxi?” Or maybe other Chinese people would approach them in the street and say “Hallo! Can I practice my English wis you?” I can’t imagine that would feel good…to constantly be treated like an outsider in your own country. I guess on the flip side, maybe it would be easy to get a job teaching English no matter how good your English actually is.
I’ve heard people say that even in a society as ethnically varied as America’s is, that it can be hard to gain acceptance and to feel like a fully integrated member of society as an immigrant or even just as someone who isn’t white. Obviously, my observations on this matter are completely one sided, but many of the people whom I’ve heard say this are people who chose to live in segregated neighborhoods like China town, Korea town, the “Hispanic part of town” and so on. Places where you don’t need to speak English to do your shopping or banking, where your job can be done entirely in your native language. The thing is, I’m not sure if they live in these neighborhoods because they tried to integrate themselves and couldn’t do it, or if they never really tried at all. I also know people on the opposite end of the spectrum – people who have perhaps married into American families, joined clubs or churches and found jobs outside of their ethnic community and I’ve never heard any of them say that they feel like they’re on the fringe of society. Again, maybe it’s because there’s something about these people that make them easier to accept, their personalities or maybe they’re really good looking…I don’t know, I’m just guessing.
Ok, so my point…I don’t remember what it was. Maybe it was that people should take the time to consider and analyze the lens through which they regard race/ethnicity/nationality/etc and think about how where they are physically located at any given time impacts that lens or how experience in one place as caused one’s point of view to change.
If you don’t want to read any further, this link about sums it up.
There are many differences between American and Chinese gyms that I’ve observed over the last 10 years. The first time I went to a gym in China, the first thing I noticed was the crappy equipment…the treadmills couldn’t handle any speed over 5km/hour, the whole machine would shake and the belt would kind of skip every time my foot hit it, almost causing me to trip. I would say that in the last 3 years or so, especially in big cities, there has been an increase in the number of high end gyms like Bally’s and 24 Hour Fitness with equipment that’s no different from what you’d find in most American gyms…some of the aerobic machines even measure distances in miles and most of them are only in English. I applaud these changes, but holy crap do you pay for it! I got a one month membership at a Bally’s in Beijing about a year ago when I was there for a short term course. The membership cost about $100 USD for the month and I could only go to that one Bally’s location, even though there were 3 or 4 of them throughout the city. Granted, the membership fee would have been cheaper per month if I had bought a 6 month or a 12 month membership, but it would have still been about $900. In comparison, my gym in the states only cost $35/month for both me and my husband AND they turn on the air conditioning, nor are the locker rooms full of women gawking at me and discussing my body…that’ll take you down a peg or two. Another problem with paying for the long term memberships, even at a fancy (for China) gym is that there is a reasonably high chance of the gym suddenly closing down and you never getting your money back. That did happen at a Bally’s in Beijing, the one in Soho, I believe. It also happened at a gym in the town where I currently live. About 10 of my friends had paid for year long memberships and one day it just shut down. Literally, it was open one day and the next it was completely empty. Word on the street is that the owner took all the money and went to Australia.
Anyway, so with the cost of a good gym membership in China, you’d kind of expect that the people who go there would be serious about fitness and getting in shape. Well, you’d be wrong if you really thought that. It seems that gyms are more of a place to see and be seen. It’s uncommon to see a Chinese person actually break a sweat in a gym. I generally do and have been requested by the staff to “take it easy and not make myself tired.” I’ve actually seen some very made up girls go to the gym, change into their workout clothes and then sit in the locker room and talk with friends or make a few calls or even have a smoke before changing back into their street clothes and leaving again. I guess it’s good that they realize you’re supposed to wear a specific type of clothing to work out because not everyone does. Most people just work out in their street clothes. I guarantee that there is at least one lady in heels, wearing a business suit on a treadmill in every gym in China. I like going to spin classes mostly to observe the inevitable ridiculousness. The guy who shows up wearing khakis and a Cosby sweater, the girl who thinks that panty hose double as spandex, every one who shows up with a bottle of Coca Cola to hydrate themselves with and the 95% of people who get up and leave after the warm up because it got too tiring and of course, there’s always a dude just hanging out and having a cigarette.
If I’m in a gym working out, these people are typically not really in my way, in fact they’re better entertainment than watching TV and they make the time go faster. However, if I’m trying to go for a run on the track at school, then they become a hazard. Not to brag, but I’m a pretty good runner, even at my advanced age with my broke-ass knees. The track at our school is closed every day from 10am-4pm for PE classes that never actually show up. What this means is that every evening, the entire city shows up to screw around on the track. There is no concept of basic track etiquette here and it’s going to get someone killed. I’m thinking that someone won’t be me. I would say that in the US, it’s somewhat common knowledge (common sense?) for walkers to stay on the outer lanes of the track so as to not block runners. This is not the case in China. EVERYONE is in the first 4 lanes and meandering aimlessly across all 7…400 year old women walking backwards slapping themselves, a line of 6 giggling girls, people who suddenly stop to play with their phones, toddlers, people on bikes, the guy running in the opposite direction, and of course, the ever present smokers. I don’t slow down for these people. If I am barreling down the lane and someone stops in front of me or crosses in front of me without looking, then they get what’s coming to them because when I plow into them, it’s going to hurt. I do my best to avoid children, having sprained my ankle doing so, but one day my cat like reactions will fail me. When that day comes, my ass is not stopping and I will be heading straight back to the safety of our secure campus and I’ll just steer clear of the track for a few days.
Another type of exercise I enjoy is yoga. Yoga has really gained a following in China in the last few years. It used to be almost impossible to find a yoga instructor, equipment or even a person who had heard of yoga. This last year I have been attending yoga classes at a small yoga studio owned by Xu Laoshi, who is a phenomenal yoga teacher. That dude is not only very good at yoga, but he takes it seriously and expects his clients to as well. When I’ve gone to other yoga classes in China, the classes are usually taught by some super flexible Chinese woman wearing hemp pants and the class is full of the usual – people talking on their cell phones, talking amongst themselves, people who show up wearing jeans or dresses, and at least one smoker. You have to have at least one person smoking. The classes are usually pretty weak, as in, not challenging at all. There is a huge emphasis on stretching and breathing and relaxing, with no focus on strength or holding a pose for more than 3 seconds. Xu Laoshi, on the other hand is hard core. He kicks people out if they show up wearing inappropriate clothing or if they can’t be quiet during the class. He doesn’t allow people to bring in cell phones and if someone shows up late and thinks they’re just gonna stroll in and disrupt the class, they have another think coming. Xu Laoshi has a 80 year old woman who serves as his bouncer/secretary and she will throw your ass out if you’re late to Xu Laoshi’s class. Xu Laoshi’s classes are a lot more similar to yoga classes in the US. He puts more emphasis on strength training and really challenges people. He will walk over and adjust your posture if you do a pose incorrectly, which most Chinese yoga teachers won’t do (maybe they just won’t touch me because I’m a foreigner and kinda sweaty). Most Chinese women have a real aversion to anything that they think might cause them to develop muscles or muscle definition. They think it looks masculine and unattractive. When Xu Laoshi’s students complain about the class being too hard or if they complain about the strength poses, then Xu Laoshi will shut them down.
Right now the Chinese workout culture is kind of frustrating. I think that as obesity becomes a bigger problem in China, that will change drastically. It’s too bad that obesity would have to be the driving force behind that change, but I have to point out that one thing that the Chinese have figured out is the need for elderly people to exercise. Americans seem to think that once you no longer have to care about looking good naked, then there’s no point, but in China, it’s very common to see ancient people going for walks, stretching, doing calisthenics or even hiking up mountains. That is certainly something we could learn from China.
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 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 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 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.
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.