Edit: I wrote a new blog post on my professional services website reflecting on this idea, building on this original post. You can read it here.
Sharing stories about the xiao mai bu in my building last week reminded me of another lovely little example of the China life I will miss when I leave in two weeks’ time.
I dropped into a small western food place to pick up dinner a few weeks ago. There was just one person on staff at the time (she was standing outside as I walked up, perhaps inside was too lonely – or air conditioned – for her liking). She was older, with silver sprinkled through her hair and wrinkles on her sun-darkened skin. She had the face of a woman who had spent time working outdoors, unlike the freshly pale faced young people who often serve at the counters of western restaurants. Long story short, she asked for my help working out how to find the number of a received call on the store’s mobile phone. I know, it’s a small thing, but it’s a small thing that had nothing to do with me being a foreigner. She, the native speaker, asked me, the white girl and a customer, for help with something that required reading Chinese. It was like the opposite of house plant syndrome.
My favourite China moments happen when I interact with locals in ways that don’t centre around my foreign-ness. This is more rare than you might think. If I’m speaking in English, well, that’s already foreign. If I’m speaking in Chinese, it takes a while to get past the shock of the white girl speaking Chinese. Even after knowing me a while, it’s not unusual for a Chinese person to ask me lots of questions about foreigners in general (because I’m able to answer things they’ve wondered about for a long time) or ask my help with translation or language learning. So a lot of conversations revolve around topics that are very foreigner-centric. It’s not that I dislike these conversations, but it does mean that I remain very aware of my foreign-ness – and aware of their awareness of my other-ness.
This has been especially true the past few years. My whole life is centred in the expatriate community, so I have very few local Chinese friends. Hardly any of my Chinese friends from earlier years live in Beijing now. It means I spend very little time having friend-level conversations in Chinese. Most conversations I have in Chinese are largely practical, or about my foreign-ness. I guess what I’m saying is that I really value the rare occasions where my nationality and native language have little or no impact on the interaction – conversations which aren’t specifically Chinese-to-foreigner, but which could happen between two Chinese (or any two people).
The reality is that I am obviously foreign in a country whose citizens are, for the most part, quite ethnically homogenous. I stand out. My skin colour, eye colour, hair colour (and texture), not to mention my height and body shape, are all very much other. It’s pretty hard to get past that obviousness. For someone like me who likes to blend into the background, it makes life in China a bit confronting.
It was a strange concept for me to wrap my head around at first. I grew up in a multi-cultural society; by the time I was 12 I had had friends who were ethnically Chinese, Croatian, Bangladeshi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Kenyan, Malaysian, Russian, Sri Lankan, (not to mention American, Brittish, and Kiwi) and probably more besides, and who followed a variety of religions – Catholics, protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists. I now realise this was a great privilege, and an experience not shared by many – even many in my native Australia. Still, the idea that people were looking at me and assuming they knew things about me was initially disconcerting. While I understand that it’s a natural reaction, it still makes me sad that as human beings we make so many assumptions about each other simply by appearance – by skin colour, or language.
Not everyone can see past all the differences and connect with the person underneath. I treasure friends who do. But what I realised in the store the other day was that it’s unusual – and amazing – to have that sense of feeling not-foreign with someone who isn’t a friend, who hasn’t known me long enough to see past my skin colour. For someone to simply see me as a person, not just a foreigner.
I am touched to sometimes receive that understanding as a privileged expatriate in China, to be seen rather than assumed about. And I so wish that refugees and immigrants around the world received that same life giving understanding, rather than living under soul-crushing assumption.