My hands flow over the keys like dry leaves rise up into tunneled gusts of bitter wind. There is no better recipe for an identity crisis than China+foreign+female. Contrary to what you may assume, this post isn’t made in response to any particular event or self-revelation. Instead, it is written in response to years of a slow but steady realization that a foreign white girl in China will never, ever, blend in— no matter how fluent her Mandarin is.
There are perks to being a foreigner, no doubt: I’ve made friends with the owner of the corner flower shop, the founder of a Taiwanese bubble tea shop, two female pharmacists, the girl who makes my coffee at McDonalds, and the guy from Harbin who sells 煎饼…. all within one block of my apartment. I dare say that this “small town feel” wouldn’t be possible if I had dark silky hair and boasted about childhood memories in Sichuan province.
Sure, people might pack your flower order with extra grace, prepare your coffee with a bit more cream, give you a smile as they meticulously fold your shirt and politely hand you a receipt— but on those rainy days when your hands are full, your language skills just aren’t cuttin’ it, and every eye on the subway is feeding off your misery, it’s tempting to ask yourself what’s truly worth the struggle.
Culture in China. Ha… so I thought I’d studied a decent amount of it after double majoring in International Relations and East Asian Studies at Brown. But where’s my knowledge of Chinese culture when I forget to offer everyone in the room coffee after a quick brew? Where’s my knowledge of Chinese culture when I offer to help wash dishes, am told not to be polite, offer again, am turned down again….fail to offer a third time and then am blamed for it later? Where’s my knowledge of Chinese culture when I’m cheated over and over and over again when bargaining for things despite speaking flawless Mandarin?
I occasionally give presentations on behalf of our company to clients of China Merchants Bank and the Bank of China. People sometimes ask for my business card, which, under normal circumstances, should flatter me. But it’s unfortunate to note that my personal number is called far more often than our company’s, with texts from desperate mothers saying “come meet my son!” or lonely bank managers asking to “‘chat English’ over coffee”. Meanwhile, I have yet to attract a single client to our company.
I had a coworker admit that some Chinese see every foreigner as more or less the same– our appearances, morals, and personalities are just muddled up into one big “free-spirited, open, tall, blond, blue-eyed” disgustingly simplified stereotype.
As a woman, of course it feels good to be noticed— to be admired for superficial reasons; but at the end of the day, when you want to communicate a brilliant idea about Chinese society or economics and either language or gender barriers get in your way, no prior compliment about your tall figure or blue eyes feels worth the disappointment.
Yes, it feels pretty damn good to have the street-side vegetable seller tell you that you’re beautiful after a hard day at work. But a few paces down the road and you’ll inevitably end up asking yourself, “Just how much attention does it take before I truly feel satisfied?”