I’ve been back in China for a fews weeks now, but jet lag, catching-up responsibilities, grading, end-of-service paperwork, and my schedule have kept me from finishing up my thoughts on my US visit. As a result, I’ll finish up the “An American in America” series from China with this post and one more.
The list of things I enjoyed most while in America are predictable: food, cleanliness, ease of communication. But vying for the top spot is anonymity. While in America, most people didn’t notice me much less care about me. I was just another person. When they did notice me, they treated me as they would anyone else in the same situation. Customer service workers, for example, helped me because I was a customer.
It’s been a long time since I had that experience. In some spots in China, the attention is minimal. In Chengdu, we elicit the occasional 老外 (laowai) or 外国人 (waiguoren). A few stare, but mostly, people treat us like we are supposed to be there. The same goes for Kunming. My couple days in Beijing were similar, although I’ve heard foreigners at tourist sites can sometimes become the new tourist site for travelers in from other areas.
At our site, however, we are constantly reminded that we are visitors. When we arrived, we quickly realized that this would be the case any time we visited downtown. Because our campus is on the edge of the city, only those who live on our school street or campus see us regularly enough to know we live here and treat us like neighbors. People in other parts of the city tend to be surprised that we are in Anshun and feel the need to let everyone around them know we are there, discussiing our various quaities. That doesn’t include the four times this semester alone people have yelled some variation of “fuck” at us (including “fuck your mother”).
What’s been a surprise and a disappointment is that while it happens to a much lesser extent around campus, we’re still getting the remarks when around school even though we’ve been living and working on this small campus for nearly two years. Recently, there have been times we barely emerge from our apartment building before students point out we’re there or wonder aloud where we’re going. Even some faculty members still refer to us as the foreign teachers: “The foreign teachers are here.” “Did you tell the foreign teachers about the holiday?” When we eat out, the restaurant owners usually treat us as if we belong in Anshun. It’s not unusual for our fellow diners, however, to analyze who the foreigners are, how well they use chopsticks, and why they are eating spicy food (someone in China at some point decided both that no Americans eat spicy food and that everyone in China should know this. While way off base, his/her ability to spread the word in such a big country has to be admired.).
Some of this talk is done with no malice. In these cases, several explanations account for their actions. The fact that most people in this area rarely or never see foreigners contributes to the situation, as I’m sure does the long tradition of an insular Chinese society. I won’t pretend to know Chinese culture and history well enough to give a comprehensive list or even a well-educated guess. Based on the fact that many people run away or refuse to look at us when they realize we understand them, it’s hard to draw that conclusion about all of them.
The point of all this isn’t to elicit your sympathy. As a heterosexual white man, I face less and less-severe discrimination than any other demographic in the world. When we joined the PC, we knew we’d often run into situations that made clear we were foreigners, although I didn’t suspect I’d have so many people literally telling me so often. And PCVs and those doing similar work around the world deal with similar situations; mine is not unique. What makes this easier (although not always easy) to handle is that we choose how long we are surrounded by these notifications. We decided to come to China of our own free will. We could have lived a more comfortable two years in America. Through the Peace Corps, we had a paid ticket back to America waiting on us at any point during our service.
Not everyone has willfully chosen their circumstances. Other people constantly treated as others might technically have another choice, but it’s not always much of one. One of our students has what are considered strange interests in China: boats, boat-related miscellanies, LEGOs, grocery shopping, steam punk. He also sometimes has a hard time picking up on social cues, so he often has lengthy conversations about naval history in which he is the only actual participant. As a result, he’s often called “weird” or “strange” and has few friends. He can’t call up his American boss and be on a plane in a few days. America, which we like to think of as being welcoming to foreigners, is no exception. Some immigrants or non-white people in America have it better off, but most of them are the “right” kind of immigrant: educated, wealthy, etc. US immigration policy and popular opinion has always had built-in prejudices, the bias changing with history. Just to name a few, people of Jewish, African, Hispanic, Eastern European, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern descent have all been and/or still are victims of this discrimination. Some have had the misfortune of merely looking like a member of one of these distrusted groups. In countries like the Congo, some are strangers in their own country. So although I tire of the constant reminders that I am an outsider, I’m going to try to remember these last few weeks to be thankful there’s somewhere I’m an insider, but more importantly, when I do return home, I hope I can work against those ideologies that seek to estrange.