Recently an NPR series, This American Life, did a piece on “Americans In China“ (links to transcript and audio) and it’s caused me to question what does it mean to be an American, or moreover a westerner, in China?
Long stares that eyeball every inch of you, confused by your outward differences. Words shared under-breath or shouted aloud (thinking you won’t understand) about the lǎowài (老外) or dàbízi (大鼻子)–words that are technically supposed to be affectionate terms for foreigner or “big nose” but often that meaning all to often seems to be lost in translation. Shocked faces when you respond a “Hello!” with a “Nĭ Hăo!” Confused taxi drivers, subway attendants, and your “Average Wang” who, when speaking clear-intelligible Chinese to, respond to your questions with turning away or saying, “Wǒ bù dǒng!” (I don’t understand!), when you know for certain that they, in fact, should “dǒng” (understand). It is a frustrating feeling, trying to blend in with the crowd only to stand out so blatantly different, different so much so that they capture the moment on camera–afraid they will never again see something so strange. And just when you begin to feel that since of shared identity the question always arrises, “Nĭ shì nă lĭ rén?” (Where are you from?), and the wall is rebuilt again, “Wǒ shì Mĕi guó rèn.” I am an American.
I am an American living in China. Just over half-way through this three month journey in China, I have dealt with this struggle of being an American. Depending on what you are wearing, your attitude, and who you are with, you can either find doors being opened for you, or closed directly in your face. It is a paradox being a westerner in China, because for the most part the Chinese dress like me, act like me, and even desire to have the same white skin as me, yet they are not me, nor I them.
The Chinese have an overwhelming love of their country and their fellow Chinese compatriots. It is this phenomenon that will always set foreigners apart. We will never become Chinese. This is why when asking for a price on something the difference between a Westerner’s price and a Chinese’s price is always double. While this seems rude, unfair, and often feels like cheating, in someway I have to applaud them the Chinese for being so honest to one another, especially since they don’t often receive honesty from their own government.
Just give up, just quit. There comes a time when you just have to stop trying to fit in and accept your own identity. Internet censorships block your reach to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, just to name a few, and your threads of connection back to home and how others understood you are just as tattered as the fabled Silk Road. Being in China forces you to come to terms with how you see yourself, without the Facebook cover photos and frequent Twitter hashtags. Effectively urging you into your own personal solitude. While part of me aches for time to dive into the endless feed of Twitter updates and Facebook statuses, I can last no longer than a few short minutes before the foundation of the Great Wall sets and I find myself standing beneath it again. Struggling to grow and grappling onto a new culture shreds you of your venerability leaving you nude until you can tailor the clothes that truly fit your form.
Come on, eyeball me all you want. Take your pictures. Spread your gossip. Shock yourself even. Act as confused as your wish to be. You are only giving notice to something I am already well aware of–I am just as unknown to you, as I am to myself.