The Trouble with Me in China, and Why I’m Returning

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It has been about two months that I have been back in the U.S. If things work out I will be back in China by February. I have all the necessary trepidations collected and percolating in my brain preparing for all the appropriate anxieties of “what ifs” and the “I don’t knows”. I feel quite prepared in that capacity. Some people, my friends who know me well, may wonder why I’m returning to China when I had expressed such a deep hatred for the place. The public, like my youtube channel and this blog space or even my Facebook, didn’t know I had such a hatred for the place, but I’m laying it all-out-on the line here people; I hated it. I think it is difficult to be truly honest about your feelings on social media and in a public forum because there is/can be so much backlash to everything you write. Honestly, I think it is okay to hate a place. The important part is to understand why you hate it and then to figure out if it is a fair reason to hate it, and if it is really something about yourself and your preconceived ideas that make you hate it, and again, is that a fair assessment. You know the: “It’s not the place it’s you,” effect. ETC…

I didn’t feel the need to express my true feelings to the great big world because it was too early. It took me a full year away from China to appreciate China, but while I was there it was difficult. It was difficult because I had culture shock. Part of the shock had to do with the experience of being, to sound cliche, the stranger in a strange land or to be more succinct, “the other”. It was difficult because I wasn’t used to being the only one that looked like me. I grew up in a white town with white people. America is a society that caters to white people even though America doesn’t want to admit it, it’s true. White people are everywhere; in the movies; in the magazines; on the news; everywhere. It’s so white when you’re white you don’t even know what it feels like to not belong even when you’re a misfit and you don’t belong- that is if you live in a white society. I also spent 13 years in Portland, Oregon, and Portland during the time I was there was voted one of the whitest cities in the United States. My point is, is that when you are the majority you don’t notice it even when you feel lonely and out of place, and yes, even when you feel cheated and misrepresented. You might think you don’t get any of the benefits of the majority because you are on the bottom of the heap of the majority, but you still pass as the majority and that passing is bigger than you think. Bascially, you don’t have to think about being white you just are a person (that by the way is part of what people mean by privilege: you are a person not a person with a skin color other than white). I had never thought of myself in the sense of “otherness.” Often I had felt like I didn’t always connect or fit-in with white America or even the American Dream because of what I felt internally (sometimes based on my experiences as a woman and as being raised poor and on welfare), but that is not the same as being “the other”. Then I moved to a place where I was the minority. Then I knew. No, to know is too strong a verb, you don’t know, I became sensitive to it; to skin color, to color and to race.

I’m not going to get into the conversation of racism in China versus racism in America or express some kind of kindred “I understand discrimination” because woes me I was a poor lonely white woman in China. Being white in China is exponentially different from being black (or latino, or native American…) in America, for one thing, a black person in America is an American (which I think some people have seemed to have gotten confused) while a white person in China is an American too (even when you are not) but you are also 100% not Chinese and nor will you ever be Chinese. The experience of white male versus the white female are different too and I’m not writing here to expose the great secret of the white man’s success with Chinese women, as well as there are many different nationalities and races of people who live in China and experience their own kind of foreigner experience. My point is to express the feeling of being a minority when you come from a world where you were the majority (even if not in actual numbers, but in power of a social system) and what that felt like to me and how it contributed to my experience of culture shock. My heightened sense of sensitivity and growing awareness and openness to listening to the words of American people of color (and new immigrants) is just a positive (I think positive) by-product of my experience, but it can never compare to what it feels like to grow up feeling like “the other” in a country that is supposed to be your home. When I use the word minority as applied to me in China I mean a minority by the definition of small in numbers: As in smaller less seen, and therefore standing out; not invisible; and a bit like a zoo animal. In my ignorance I had thought I would like the attention. As if I’d be like a movie star. But, I didn’t like the attention, and the attention wasn’t like being a movie star it was more like being a freak. Now, I’m just writing about the negative culture shock moments to build toward the positive ending in this post so hold your possible anger and go along with it…

The stares, Jim! The stares!

It was disconcerting. At first I tried to smile at people who stared hard at me, and occasionally someone would smile back, but most often a smile would only make the stare harder. I, of course, didn’t and couldn’t know what people were really thinking, but to me it was that I did not belong there. Not that people were going to push me out, but just that I was not a part of the community, and I could not blend in. I was noticeable everywhere I went. Some people wanted to take my picture, some people just wanted to stare at me, and children pointed and screamed. They didn’t scream in terror, I mean they screamed in delight, It was like: “MOMMY! LOOK AT THE CLOWN, MOMMY!” And, that was what got to me. Of course it was charming when a large group of school girls walked by and yelled out in english, “I love you!” But it wasn’t charming when a group of men would circle me and examined me like I was something to purchase, and yes that happened too. I will hands down admit I was not good at handling the attention, but I am also grateful because for the first time it made me feel, really feel (minus the violence) what it is to be a minority, and to be looked at for your skin, your eyes, your hair. Even though people thought I was beautiful or exotic it still made me uncomfortable because I was being examined. I have a rather extreme example of what I mean by examined: Once, I had to pee in a public restroom at the train station, and this bathroom was like a trough. It was open stalls where you would squat over this narrow little trench with the piss and shit running like two little rivers as if you were a giant straddling the land and defecating into the canyon below. I felt uncomfortable, not only because I sucked at the squat and because all this human feces was so close to me, but because there were no stalls, and I knew, I just knew someone was going to try to look at my vagina as I peed. How did I know this? because I had already been examined in a public shower before, not by everyone of course, but it only takes one person feeling completely fine examining you to make you feel awkward; but I had to pee. Most women walked by not caring, but then it happened. She saw me squatting, and she slowed down and tried to take a peek, but my attempt to gracelessly hide myself while simultaneously not pee on my feet or slip into the river of stench did register to her that she was violating my privacy, and dropped her head and quickly walked away, but the very fact that she would have felt okay trying to do it in the first place is what I mean about being examined.

At the school where I taught, huge groups of new potential students were touring the classrooms. There were hundreds of students. It was near the end of my year in China and I had already been accustomed to people being excited or surprised to see my skin and my hair, and my very American looking face. As I saw the large group of students walking towards the windows of my classroom where I was teaching, I could see some of the eyes of the kids light up as they saw me, and I knew it would be a matter of minutes till the cameras came out. I moved down off the podium as I was talking and into the thick of my class, as I did so the cameras began flashing. Many of the visiting students had pressed themselves up against the window to get a good shot. My own students, who looked at me like I was old news, and had had plenty of exposure to foreigners, gasped at the disruption, and a couple of the girls screamed in that very teenaged annoyed way, “Oh MY GOD!” And, some Chinese expletives were yelled as well. A few of them ran to the windows to lower the blinds.

“It’s like they think we’re animals in a zoo!” One of my students yelled.

I loved my students, even the students that would frustrate me. I wish I could have given them more. One day some of my students were telling me that if I went to a certain historical place, on a public holiday, I would be mobbed by the crowed because I was a foreigner, and a lot of villagers go there, and they may never have seen a white person or any foreigner before. So I said, “I’ll wear a hat and cover my hair”. My student shook her head, no. “I’ll wear a hat and sunglasses to cover my eyes”. My student shook her head, no. “I’ll wear a hat, and glasses, and a scarf around my face, and I’ll wear long sleeves and gloves to cover my skin”. “No,” my student said, “You’ll never be able to hide that nose.” (For those of you who don’t know Chinese people think foreigners have big noses. Some do.) It was difficult to be the only one who looked like me, but then there was the language too. Not only couldn’t I blend in because of my physical appearance, I also couldn’t communicate. I was surrounded by millions (literally millions) of people, and I was isolated. This was hard for me. This was just the beginning of the culture shock, then there was the actual culture- so different yet sometimes eerily familiar to my own; and then the pollution which was like the apocalypse (no joke); and the construction; and the population; and how education is conducted; and business is run; and the the shitty hierarchy of the work place for Chinese people; and so many nuanced things. And then, there was my mother’s death.

I sometimes think if my mom had not died, suddenly while I was in China, that I may have gotten past the culture shock phase, but because she did die, I was thrown into a despair that I couldn’t grasp, and with no close friends to turn to, friends who knew my relationship with my mother, and I felt lost. I felt an isolation I had never experienced before, an isolation that changed me, permanently. There were other things too: stress at school, and friendship loneliness, and just basic life stresses. When I was about to leave China I couldn’t get away fast enough. I thought to myself I fucking hate this country and I’ll never return, but I was lying to myself. I just didn’t know it.

It took me almost a full year away from China to finally appreciate it, and that appreciation first came through food and e-mails from a friend. I missed Chinese food. You can’t get Chinese food anywhere in the world other than China. That food you’re eating that you think is Chinese is nothing; it’s crap. Go to China, eat the food, you’ll find the food gods. It’s that good. Sure there’s crazy stuff like bird heads and tongues and testicles and yes some places still eat dogs and cats, and you’ll probably eat a rat thinking it’s chicken, but you don’t have to eat those things (if you know what you’re eating), there is so much to choose from so many amazing noodles, and spices, and broths, and vegetables…food ecstasy. The spices! Oh, the spices! Then there were my friends. The Chinese friends I had made who missed me and sent me e-mails hoping to not lose touch, and hoping that I would return to visit them again one day. And my foreign friends that stayed or returned and still sent messages and shared stories “of crazy life in China”. In all that isolation and loneliness and cultural shock I had made friends. Foreigner friends and Chinese friends. Good friends. I missed my students (who I will most likely never see again). Then there was Xi’an.

I lived in Zhengzhou. I can say, still, today as I write this, I didn’t like Zhengzhou. It wasn’t my kind of city, and the pollution was too much, and the construction was too much, and it wasn’t culturally interesting to me. I think maybe you have to be Chinese to appreciate the city, or maybe not, I don’t know why foreigners like it there, you’d have to ask them, it wasn’t the right place for me. If I had only spent my time in Zhengzhou which is where I spent most of my time, I may not have ever wanted to return to China, but I went to Kaifeng, Luoyang, and to Xi’an. All those places were just as polluted as Zhengzhou (don’t underestimate this pollution. It’s bad the world should care) but the beauty of the other cities and their cultural heritage helped me to overlook the pollution (to an extent). They were filled with history and were so exciting for me to visit. Then there was Xi’an. I had wanted to go to Xi’an since I was a little girl. Xi’an was one of my “before I die” places. I loved the city, and it was my last impression of China. China that is so huge and vast that I merely stuck my toe in the ocean of it. This last impression reminded me that I had wanted to visit China for a long time and there was so much to see and experience.

I am returning to China. This time to Beijing, and this time for the job not just China. My strongest interest is in the job. I’m not going to try to conquer China, to go back and say: “Yes! This time I made it!” I’m going because there is an opportunity for me, and also because there is so much more to see in China than Zhengzhou. I will be on the coast. In a new province. In the city of the last Dynasty. And, I’ve been to China, and I have a better idea of what to expect. It may be more difficult. I don’t know, but I’m not blinded by magazine articles and illusions of ‘What is China.” I find a humor now in the things that caused me stress. Not that I’m into people examining me peeing, but I also know that is not an everyday occurrence, and I’m mentally prepared unlike I was before. Plus, being able to tell a story about someone trying to watch you pee because you know they’re wondering if a white woman’s pee or vagina is the same as their own can be a pretty funny story to tell— afterwards, long afterwards. Beijing will be more crowded, and more polluted, but I won’t be arriving this time like a wide eyed idiot with the innocent thinking, “oh, it’ll be like I’m a movie star.” That was just a stupid thing to think. There are just somethings you can not know without experiencing them. I’ve experienced China once in one small part. This time I hope to do better. To feel better. To leave thinking, “Oh, I could visit again.”

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2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Me in China, and Why I’m Returning

  1. Adrienna,
    This is probably not the right place to contact you, but I just wanted you to know how sorry I was to hear about your mom. I hope that me writing to you in here doesn’t creep you out but I thought that I should at least offer my sympathy and a virtual hug from a distance if I could. Have a good time with your travels, explore and keep experiencing you are a wonderful person.
    Gary

    • Hey Gary,
      I’m not sure if this get’s back to you, but I just want to thank you for the note. Your condolences and long distance virtual hug are greatly appreciated. Thank you. I hope you’re doing well.

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