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 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 seeing 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-centred perspective, I just wish someone would appreciate how much I try to fit in. But this is not going to happen because the 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 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.