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Get Out of My China Fantasy

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.

Comments (4)

Greetings!

I came across a similar phenomenon when I was an English teacher in rural Japan in the mid-1990's, and frankly, I think my husband (Japan in the late '90s, rural also) had the same outlook. I actually loved whenever I came across the odd foreigner who wandered into my town. Most of my friends were local Japanese who didn't speak English, and I looked forward to just hanging out with my Western friends, speaking fluent, conversational English without having to worry about unfamiliar phrases or cultural cues, having common cultural references.

Some -- although by no means all -- of the visiting foreigners I met turned out to be soon-to-be-permanent residents, and I really loved taking them around to my favorite places and sharing with them some of the things that had made my life much, much easier. I remembered well how difficult it had been for me, when I first came to town, to do something as simple as pay my electric bill, send money or letters home, or even just buy a countertop stove. I didn't speak or write or read any Japanese when I first arrived, so I had to depend not only on my new co-workers (most of whom didn't have any English skills either) but also on random strangers to do the most innocuous things, like identify milk in the grocery store. I really enjoyed playing "host" with the new arrivals, helping them adjust and avoid some of the mistakes I made.

I know what you mean about feeling possessive about your town, but perhaps you might see it from the point of view of newcomers who aren't as fortunate as you are to be so intimate with its secrets and charm, and to share some of that with them? You never know -- it might even enhance your own appreciation for your home and make you feel even more connected to it than you already do, since now you're also one of its ambassadors. ;-)

Cheers,
Marjorie

Kat:

Hi, I just wanted to say how much I like your blog. I have to confess I came across this while I googled Peter Hessler to find his New Yorker articles. I started teaching in Wuhan about 6 weeks ago and I'm already guilty of same animosity towards other foreigners. Over the holiday, my friends and I ended up in the middle of tourist central near Guilin, asking each other, "where'd all the freakin' laowais come from?"

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/expat/josephinemcdermott/10137937/expat-xenophobes/

I was directed to your blog because I've just written about a similar thing. The other day I was looking at a map in the street on an "adventure" and another laowai asked if I needed help. I'm ashamed to say I think I glared back at him.

FLARE:

well i am a chinese guy in london and when i run into other orientals, they dont show me much love either. here in london, i run into people from nepal who look like me all the time. theyve never once said a word to me. i also run into various chinese looking people throughout the london underground. i think the only people who got this unity thing down pact is black people. several years ago, i arrived at a university style party in manchester with an african friend of mine. when we walked in, we saw another african, and he automatically said hello to him, and shook his hand. i asked, do you know that guy, and he said no, thats just what black people do. i think that black people will do this, no matter if they are from africa, jamaica, or usa. they also refer to each other as brother and sister. can you imagine a japanese guy walking up to a chinese guy at a party in johanesburg and say, "whats up my brother"?

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