I was thrown onto the streets of Beijing in 2006 by chance. I knew little of China, and I had never visited such a strange land on my own.
But I knew I’d have support. It took only a short walk on a Beijing street to find other foreigners. As newfound minorities in a strange land, I knew we’d share an instant bond, just like people living in sparse towns on the edge of civilization do in the US, where they say “hello” to anyone walking by on the sidewalk, acquaintance or not.
But during my first venture onto Beijing’s streets, I noticed that my fellow foreigners didn’t simply refrain from camaraderie. They wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
It took me weeks to puzzle it all out. These foreigners managed to cross the street without getting hit by cars (not an easy task in China), so blindness wasn’t a good explanation. I eventually decided that they wanted to subscribe to the cushy illusion that China was all theirs, and trying not to recognize my presence could help maintain that comforting illusion. Or perhaps it was just that I hadn’t discovered that Chinese department stores did actually stock deodorant.
When I came to have feelings just like those foreigners, I realized that on the inside, it felt more like animosity. Instead of “I don’t want to see you” the feeling is more akin to “Get out of my China fantasy!”
Peter Hessler reports feeling the same instant animosity toward foreign visitors to Fuling in River Town. Along with the illusion of being an intrepid explorer in a foreigner-free foreign land, foreigners also come to feel a sense of ownership over China and their China experience. The so-dirty-it-must-be-authentic noodle shop hidden on a back street becomes a badge. The hole-in-the-wall goes from being a restaurant to being my restaurant.
Yet the dirty-restaurant badge becomes as worthless as a cereal box detective badge when other foreigners begin eating there. I’m absolutely certain that I’m not the only foreigner to have a twang of disappointment when foreigners waltz into “my” hole-in-the-wall noodle stall. “They found it by accident. They’re not really China adventurers,” I convince myself.
The result is a foreigner-free hierarchy of China cred. The high-scorers are those living in remote villages where the illusion of being a modern day Marco Polo actually approaches reality.
Those of us living in metropolises like Beijing and Guangzhou can often be found apologizing for the fact that we’ve chosen these well-traveled routes. Even I would brag to my Beijing friends that I hadn’t seen foreigners in Guangzhou in weeks. “They’re really just confined to one downtown area. Not where I live.”
Yet, if we can’t claim to be the only foreigner in a remote outpost, we can at least mentally erase the other foreigners from our Chinese city. Darting our eyes away from other foreigners we encounter on the street is simply our eye muscles instantiating this desired illusion.
As my days in Beijing turned to weeks and months, I found my desire for camaraderie transforming into the same animosity toward foreigners that I had decried when I first arrived. At that moment, I became just like all the other foreigners that I was claiming weren’t actually there.