As a foreigner—in Chinese, “waiguoren 外國人”—you always stand out in China. And people will make sure you know that—you’ll walk by and you’ll hear a conversation in Chinese about how you’re different. Waiguoren will hear: you’re taller, you’re whiter, you’re darker, your eyes are different, your nose bridge is higher, you have more acne, you have less acne, you have wavy hair, your hair is not as wavy as was expected, you have these dots on your skin, you sunburn so easily and yet you stay in the sun, hmm you sweat a LOT, were you born with dark skin? are you black? are you Indian? are you Dominican? are you Canadian? you’re American but what are you really?, you’re too tall for your bike, your clothes are very athletic, your clothes are very “fashion” or “bling,” you must be 45, must be 30, must be married, must be single, must be dating, must be a Chinese learner, must be an English teacher, must be lost, must be rich, must be friends with every single foreigner in the area.
Some people find it annoying, but usually I think it’s funny. I think a sense of humor should be one of the number one qualifications for the increasingly tough visa application to China—an ability to laugh at yourself as much as you may laugh at the old man bicycling in crocs, Bermuda shorts, and a Santa hat in April. “I am ridiculous,” you find yourself thinking, and for the first few weeks, maybe even months, this becomes the bane of your existence. Why can’t I step outside without people staring at me? Then you get over it—you accept that you are different, you move on, you smile graciously and say “ting bu dong 聽不懂” if you don’t want to take a picture with some strangers and their 3-month-old blob of a child (or, you pass them your own camera if you, too, want to cherish this memory of awkwardness forever). Most of the stares, the sing-song hollering of “hallo” from betelnut red-stained mouths recklessly scootering by, the furtive glances of dimpled children between train seats, the requests for MSN Messenger friendship, the desire for pictures—most of them are rooted in curiosity. Being the object of unflagging curiosity makes you feel different, and sometimes repeated awareness of difference can be mentally exhausting. But curiosity is less harmful than dismissal, or repulsion. Ultimately, I like that people here are curious because it forces me to examine myself more (plus, it’s good Chinese practice).
Growing up as the child of Indian immigrants in America, I noticed that my mom always would smile at another Indian, especially if it was an “auntie,” even if she didn’t know her. There was no concrete reason for smiling at a stranger—my mom didn’t know her, my mom isn’t from the Midwest and thus can’t claim a unique brand of friendliness, and the stranger may not have been Indian at all. But there it was, the smile. And for Indian-Americans, there it often is—sometimes discomfort, sometimes a sense of comfort, sometimes a sense of friendship. Whatever it is, there is an elusive quality that hovers on the borderline of camaraderie and awkwardness when one Indian comes across another. I had a revelation, this month, that how foreigners act in China reminds me of how Indians (or other minority groups) might act in America. There is the alertness to presence—you always know when a foreigner is in the room, on the street, in the same subway car as you. You draw on visual and audio cues, and sometimes can even tell what country they’re from (it’s often easy to spot from accent and style if someone of Chinese descent is American, not Chinese). Either way you’re automatically entered into this unofficial society of foreigners. Both of you know that you have seen the other, and there is the awkward mutual pause when actions are mulled. A lot of it depends on situation (Are you trapped on a subway car? Are you just passing by in the street? Are you at the supermarket? Are you with friends or alone?) During the pause, you could decide to either: 1, Avert your eyes and walk by as if nothing happened, because, well, this is just another stranger. 2, Avert your eyes but smile as you pass, in case they look at you, to convey vague feelings of camaraderie but not have to interact with a stranger. 3, Look at them and smile, and gauge whether a conversation is mutually desired. 4, Head nod. 5, Commiserating comment (“Don’t you just miss pizza?”). 6, The “Where are you from?” segue into riveting conversation, and 7. Scream “AMERICA!!!” as you walk by—I have never and will probably never do this but people have told me it’s a strategy.
Anyway, what it boils down to is that even your inaction (choice 1) is an action, because there is always this question of the waiguoren in the room that you have to grapple with. It can be a positive thing—someone you can gravitate to when you just feel an overwhelming need to speak rapid English; a potential connection to a job or new friends; someone with an interesting life story. It can also be a negative thing—it could be someone who seems selfish, rude, and culturally insensitive, who couldn’t be more different from you. And this makes you upset that he or she reflects poorly on foreigners who come to China. Some expats give Chinese people the impression that foreigners are “just here because they couldn’t make it in America” or “just here to get Chinese women.” The main thing is, you and the random foreigner are brought together, even against your will, by the shared identity of not necessarily being the same in terms of background, interests, personality, or even citizenship—but by being a minority, a foreigner, in Chinese society.
Chinese people tend to see me as a sort of foreigner twice removed—I first say I’m American, but they press me and I tell them I am also of Indian heritage, that my parents moved to America from India. So as an Indian-American living in China, in their eyes I am different even among the different.
As a waiguoren twice removed, then, I can tell you that being foreign in China is a lot more complicated than you think. Marco Polo could probably give more insight on this, if someone could just find him in the swimming pool.