Shenyang or the Art of Being Chinese (我不也是中国人!)

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Despite what a few Chinese people may think, I am not from Xinjiang, one of China’s western frontier provinces. No, seriously, I have been asked if I was from there. I guess seeing Westerners who speak Mandarin is still fairly rare, so Chinese “naturally” assume I’m one of their exotic minorities, one that looks Central Asian.

But I swear I’m not Chinese. Even though these days, when I look at my reflection in the mirror, I’m almost surprised to see a big nose, round eyes, eyebrows that need plucking and auburn hair. I’m so used to see Asians everywhere that I could forget I’m not one of them.

I do remember it when I see the shoes—way, way too small for my Western feet. And when I’m in the crowd, because I’m taller than anyone around (which is pretty useful when I’m trying to find my mother-in-law and her sister, who somehow always manage to lose us).

Yet, somehow, despite my foreign genes, I’m expected to be Chinese. Feng’s mother’s English skills are very basic and her family doesn’t speak a word of it. Feng speaks Mandarin most of the time. So do I. It’s a bit exhausting at times, much like when I first came to Canada and had to concentrate to understand English and communicate with people.

It’s not just the language, though. I eat Chinese food, buy Chinese clothes, live in a Chinese apartment and shop in Chinese stores.

Excluding Shanghai, I can count the number of Westerners I have seen in China on my ten fingers. The last time I saw one, I actually stared at the poor guy. I couldn’t help it, they—we—are so rare! It’s a bit like spotting a unicorn or a double rainbow.

I may not be a Chinese minority but I’m definitely a minority here. It’s an interesting experience. I don’t mind it, overall.

From a very selfish and self-centered perspective, I just wish someone would appreciate how much I try to fit in. But this is not going to happen because Chinese don’t praise, they criticize.

And oh boy, they criticize and pick on you… I’m already used to it with my in-laws: nothing is ever good enough. If we get a new job, we should have gotten a better one; if we have a kid, we should already have had two by now; if we buy something, we should have listened to them and bought the other thing they were recommending, etc.

Most Chinese are like that, I find. They like to pick on you to highlight your weaknesses in order to correct them.

From a Western perspective, it can be rude and annoying.

For instance, about an hour after we met, Feng’s aunt decided she was going to take me shopping because my clothes weren’t good enough. The day after, she wanted to buy me a hat because my skin could get dark with the sun (I’m already tan, get over it!). Then she brought Chinese medicine—I didn’t dare to ask what they were for, slimming I suspect—and insisted that I should get my hair curled.

Again, I do not know this woman.

And when you don’t want something, you cannot just say “no thank you” politely. You have to physically block the person, shout “no, no!” and argue for ten minutes. It’s a bit like dealing with Mark having a tantrum.

Chinese like to decide what’s best for you. If they think you should rest, they won’t let you go out. If they decide you should eat, they fill your plate with stuff they order for you. If they decide it’s time to shop, they pick what you need.

They also love to criticize our terrible parenting skills. Mark should wear at least three layers of clothing (never mind it’s 25°C), he should eat a lot and constantly but NOT what we give him (whatever they feed him is best), he should be quiet but smile for pictures, he should sleep on command but wake up to meet new people, we shouldn’t let him drink soda (we occasionally do in China if we can’t find bottled water, as tap water is not drinkable) but he is welcome to munch on Chinese candies all day long, etc. One of Feng’s cousins was very mad at me when I bought a yogurt from a convenience store for Mark—I should have gone to the fancy supermarket, these stores are dirty!

It can be very tiring. Really, Mark is his usual self (i.e. he can be very annoying and exhausting) but he does very well considering we are backpacking in China and he is not even two years old!

Making conversation is also complicated, and not because of the language issue. I’m pretty good at small talk but my skills don’t work in China because typical questions you may ask in the West are considered impolite here. For instance, you don’t talk about work because it’s irrelevant and boring—everybody does the same job at the same level, i.e. work in a factory, in business, etc. Questions about family can be a minefield. We can’t talk about China vs. the West because most Chinese have never been abroad and the culture gap is too wide. We can’t talk about pop culture for the same reasons.

I do the best I can. I try to be polite the Chinese way while keeping my sanity.

When it doesn’t work, well, I just blog about it.

At the Mall

At the Mall

Loving Minnie

Loving Minnie

Mao's Statue

Mao’s Statue

Wuai Market

Wuai Market

Chinese Apartment

Chinese Apartment

Selling Candies

Selling Candies

Queuing for Food

Queuing for Food

Burger King

Burger King

Taiyan Jie

Taiyan Jie

Little Korea

Little Korea

Construction

Construction

Bus Station

Bus Station

Shenyang Street

Shenyang Street

Eyes on the Bike

Eyes on the Bike

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

20 Comments

  1. J’allais dire que tu deviens carrément chinoise mais je vois que ton côté cynique français est toujours bien là, héhé ! Le caméléon ne tombe jamais loin de son nid 😉

  2. This was such a great post to read! There are a few Chinese girls in my class, and I’m good friends with two of them, so I sometimes ask them random questions about Chinese life. It’s so fascinating to hear about. I’ve asked a few rather “political” (not really political, but I can’t think of a better work) questions, and I’ve always started the questions with “Please don’t be offended but I’ve always wondered this…”. It’s so so interesting to learn about their point of view or how they learned about some part of history in school.

  3. wonderful! As a Chinese, I sometimes clashed with my old mom in many situations or case almost exactly the same as you mentioned in the article. I realized that over years I’ve gradually changed and got rid of many traditional ways in which Chinese people are behaving but my mum remains the same. Good article! In particular the older Chinese generation is like what you wrote about.

    • Where do you live now? I.e. did you grow up outside China?

      I find there’s a big generational gap between those who grew up under communist China and those who grew up in the 1980s and later and I assume this gap is even wider when parents grew up in China and kids abroad.

      • I live and spend most of my life in China although I did have a very short period abroad. I’m now in my fourties and often reflect on many puzzling things. It made me laugh when you wrote that you were unable to reject your in-laws’ kind favors or making decisions for you. This is in China! It’s quite normal, we are so used to it. For example, my mom likes to ask every price of every article I bought from outside no matter how trivial it is. Like other Chinese people, she likes to follow the majority in blind. What made me laugh is that she likes to say: “we should do it because others began to do it” or “this must be worthy, otherwise why others did it?” Older generations tend to have simple minds because of their growing experience, but I think it’s a pity that our society and education have changed little. Although our young children do not want to accept old ideas but they have to be affected like my generation.

        • 在中国生活的中国人……是吗!I’m flattered, I rarely get visitors from China! 欢迎欢迎,请坐,你吃饭了吗?

          There are plenty of Chinese traditions I value and respect while other drive me crazy. The whole gift-giving experience, for instance… I’m still a Westerner when it comes to that, I never truly mastered this art. I don’t always understand Chinese food “superstitions” (i.e. “you should eat that because it’s good for (insert health concern)”) but French are weird when it comes to food as well, so meh. Respect for the elderly and the older generations also makes sense to me as a French but it’s not always easy to accept. That’s one of my biggest struggles with my in-laws: I believe that as parents, we should decide what’s best for our son but they think we should do what they say because they are older and have more experience.

          One aspect of Chinese culture that struck me the last time we were in China (2014) was how individualistic people were becoming. There was a “got mine, fuck you” attitude in most big cities I don’t remember noticing in the late 1990s-early 2000s. I understand everybody wants to live better, get richer… but at the same time, I think some positive values (helping each other, living together) are being lost in the process.

          你在生么城市生活?

          Your English is so good I would have sworn you were a born-abroad Chinese!

          • Thank you for your compliments! 我吃过了,您吃了吗?
            I live in Xuzhou (徐州) city,roughly in central east part of China.
            I came across your blog while I was searching online with “百度 ” for “broken English”. I was very interested in your articles. They are interesting and insightful. Although only having read one or two of them, I will continue to read the rest in my spare time.
            China has changed greatly and will continue changing even more rapidly. Sometimes people even couldn’t believe it and wonder what tomorrow will be like. Some may feel confused, anxious, or even begin to miss the rural farming life. Many of our parents lived that way. But with nation-wide demolitions and constructions, all China’s rural villages might be completely wiped out one day in the future. The gap between rich and poor are getting far more big. Best time an worst time both come in China now, ha-ha! I think the old culture with peasants’ background will vanish along with the older generation in not long time.
            The 90s or later are surely quite different, obviously they are more educated and smart, but sometimes more selfish or self oriented. Their values might not be in line with traditional Chinese norms but are caused by the intense social competitions, i think. China has changed so much!

          • 我从来没去过徐州 but I’ve heard of 伏羊节 for some reason! And I hope I don’t sound condescending… but gee, your English *is* amazing. I can’t tell the difference with a native speaker.

            I have many articles by now (I’ve been blogging for 13 years), but I can recommend these ones:

            https://correresmidestino.com/chinese-culture-explained-in-five-expressions/
            https://correresmidestino.com/keqi/
            https://correresmidestino.com/people-of-beijing-creative-signs/
            https://correresmidestino.com/thoughts-from-the-27th-floor/

            I’m sorry, I feel like I’m promoting myself… but you may find them interesting if you’re looking for another (sometimes naive!) perspective on China.

    • And since you mentioned it… I’m very disconnected from the Chinese web (outside major newspapers). Do mainland Chinese blog? Would you have websites to recommend?

      • I’m not sure. Maybe blocking domestic web to outside viewers just like it does to outside pages. I’m not very clear about what you want, major Chinese newspaper websites? pure Chinese or equipped with English translation? Could you give the names?

        • Ah, I didn’t express myself well!

          I didn’t mean I couldn’t connect to Chinese websites but that I haven’t really tried 🙂 So I was looking for non-official websites written by Chinese citizens, maybe blogs or others.

          • To some extent I get your point, i think. For sure, there’re tons of blogs or other forms of online individual posts available by Chinese. But what subjects, fields, trade or topics are you interested in? Culture, history, politics, economy or any others? Internet has huge amount of information, you know. I guess you’re referring to the hot issues that Chinese are now facing, right? since you emphasized on “non-official”.

          • Actually, I’d rather stay away from political issues (there is just too much political issues in North America right now…). No topics are taboo, of course, but I’m more interested in “Chinese voices”, i.e. people like you who are China’s future 🙂 I would call them “lifestyle blogs”, Chinese talking about their life. Does it make sense?

        • Thank you! Yes, they all work very well here. What would be the most popular social media used in Chinese? For instance, here it’s often WordPress (for blogs), Facebook, YouTube, Twitter… is there a very popular platform in China?

  4. Yes, I got your point. When I find some interesting blogs or websites which I think would be meaningful to you, i will surely recommend to you.

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