Manifestations of the mind

Posted: October 10, 2011 in Chinese Culture
Tags: , , ,

For the National Day holiday I went on a week-long bike trip from Beijing to my girlfriend’s hometown in Shandong, which I’ll be covering over several posts. The thing that stuck out most during the trip was actually a recurring incident I’ve noticed since I arrived in China that’s always fascinated me. It’s when local Chinese manifest things in their mind that their eyes and ears should contradict…and it almost always has to do with foreigners.

One night my (Chinese) girlfriend and I tried to go into a park to camp. A guard ran over to us and stood in my path while my girlfriend stood several meters behind. I started speaking to him in Chinese.

Guard: (looking at my girlfriend) You guys can’t go in.

Me: Why not?

Guard: (Doesn’t reply, continues to look to my girlfriend for help)

Me: What’s the problem? You can tell me directly.

Guard: (Looks to my girlfriend again) Can you translate what I said?

Me: She doesn’t need to translate, I heard you. I’m asking you why we can’t go in.

Guard: (Eyes dart back and forth between me and my girlfriend, still doesn’t talk)

Me: (Raise my voice) Are you able to speak?!

Guard: (Starts to speak, but hesitates. Looks to girlfriend yet again.)

Me: (Raise my voice almost to a yell and slowly pronounce each word) ARE YOU ABLE TO SPEAK?!

Guard: Yes

Me: Then please tell me why we can’t go in!

Guard: (Tells my girlfriend) No bicycles allowed in the park.

Another time we were eating at a restaurant and a nearby customer looked at me and laughed. “It seems he’s not accustomed to using chopsticks,” he said to my girlfriend. I was using chopsticks flawlessly as I have for the past four years at nearly every meal. My girlfriend assured me that my Chinese was flawless when speaking with the guard as well. But the customer simply believed that foreigners can’t use chopsticks. And the guard might as well have met a Chinese-speaking dog. Nothing about the situation made sense to him and his belief that foreigners can’t speak Chinese. Seeing or hearing things that directly contradicted their beliefs wasn’t enough to change either of their minds.

This was most prevalent in cities of about 50,000-200,000; pretty small towns by Chinese standards. While my girlfriend was inquiring about bus tickets in one of these towns called Qingyun in Shandong, some locals gathered around me and my bike – which is a run-of-the-mill 21-speed that you see anywhere in China, including in that particular town.

Local 1: The foreigner rides one of those professional bikes.  It must cost at least 5,000 yuan, probably more like 10,000.

Local 2: Yes, he must have brought it with him from Europe.

Qingyun foreign experts

Me: I bought it for 650 yuan in China.

Local 1: (Completely ignores what I just said) They can go as fast as a motorcycle you know.

Me: Believe me, it’s just a normal Chinese bike that cost 650 yuan.

Local 1: Impossible.

Illegal taxi driver: (talking to me) You know you won’t get any bus tickets. I’ll take you where you want to go.

Me: How much?

Taxi driver: 800 yuan. (The trip would never cost more than 400 for Chinese)

Me: Haha, don’t joke.

Taxi Driver: No joke, for you that’s not very much.

Me: Are you kidding me? I’m a student. I can’t spend that kind of money. It’s twice what we’ve spent this entire trip.

Local 3: You should just charge him 2,000 yuan. Foreigners don’t care about money.

[Conversation condensed slightly for brevity sake.]

In the countryside farming communities the people knew nothing about foreigners, and they recognized it. They were simply full of curious questions.  In the small cities however, the people still knew nothing about foreigners, but most regarded themselves as cosmopolitan international experts. I was just fodder for them to inform one another about the habits of foreigners. They’d never encountered a foreigner, but they had encountered plenty of TV shows and teachers that play up every conceivable stereotype. My white skin immediately made me a walking incarnation of their lifetime’s accumulation of stereotypes. What I actually did or said was of little consequence. My all time favorite instance of this happened on a bus once:

Girl I’ve never met: Nice to meet you. Where are you from?


Girl: Hehe, I like you. You are very humorous.

[Not condensed in any way]

I’ve seen foreigners visiting China just as prone to letting their preconceptions totally alter what their senses tell them. Kids walking home in army fatigue become veritable Hitler’s Youth enforcing marshal law in the Chinese police state. I also heard once about a foreigner who toured a computer chip factory and noticed the workers were grounded to their tables with Velcro bracelets to prevent static. The foreigner reported though that it was a sweatshop which tied its workers to their stations so they couldn’t escape.

These are just some of the funny little every day occurrences that happen when living in China…or any foreign country I suppose.  But over time it gets pretty annoying and makes you seriously wonder how long it will take the world to understand one another and function as a truly global community.

  1. Isn’t cognitive dissonance great? I’m sometimes glad I don’t understand 905 of what goes on around me. My (American) colleague speaks good Chinese and often grumbles about the stupidity of what is said. I think there’s just idiots everywhere.

  2. This kind of experience lets white people experience a tiny bit of what it must be like to suffer real racism, I think. The stuff you experience like this in China is generally harmless – at worst it’s a bit rude. I’m just imagining what it would be like if the people around you had truly awful preconceptions about you, and there was nothing you could do to change that.

    • sinostand says:

      Very true. This kind of stuff is generally harmless and cute. I have experienced some actual harmful racism in China, but nothing I would make a stink about. Tempting as it feels sometimes, white people complaining of racism in China (and most other places) is generally pretty pathetic. It is good to get an occasional highlight of how sheltered white male middle-class Americans are. Whatever little shit we go through, we can always find high-paying work and be treated like royalty ten times in China for every one time we’re treated like talking monkeys.

      But I do often find positive racism (ie-people trying to use me to enhance their status or thinking I must be too good/rich/civilized for staying in their modest home) just as uncomfortable as the negative. The disconnect of being automatically completely different to people who haven’t yet spoken to me bugs the hell out of me.

      But yes, for whatever little China foibles I point out from time to time, I am well-aware of how (undeservedly) good I have it here, and just about anywhere.

  3. Linda Shanghai says:

    The woman giving me a facial stated that I have a large head. She reassured me that there is another woman in Shanghai with an even larger head. She described the woman’s head as being the size of a water cooler bottle.

  4. Han_LI says:

    Hairdresser at 25 kuai hair dressing place: “You are very pretty for a Russian.”
    Me: “I’m not Russian.”
    Hairdresser: “What? Impossible! You have to be Russian. Look at your face! Where else could you be from?!!” [I’m Canadian, of French Canadian and Irish descent, not like that matters.]

    Cleaning lady: “Why aren’t you married? You are 32! You are not ~too~ fat [I’m 168 cm and 62 kilos…size 2/4 in the US and Canada]! What is wrong with you?”
    Me: “I am a graduate student.”
    Cleaning lady: “Oh. I understand now.”

    Cleaning lady: “Why don’t you go away for the holiday?”
    Me: “I don’t have any money.”
    Cleaning lady: “Impossible! You are a foreigner! And besides, I know you are a scholarship student so you get 20,000 kuai a month living expenses!”
    Me: “If I got twenty thousand kuai a month as living expenses do you think I would be living in this shit hole?”
    Cleaning lady: “Good point. So how much do you get? And why aren’t you married?”

    I am ordering food, reading off the menu:
    “Oh my god!!! The laowai can read the hanzi!” to her husband. Two minutes later, when my noodles arrive, she hits him and starts screaming, “Look! LOOK! LOOK! She’s eating with her LEFT hand!!!”
    I politely tell her that I can understand everything she is saying and she stares back at me, dumbfounded. This was just outside the third ring road in Beijing.

    Cleaning lady: “I’m sooo hot!”
    Me: “Are you wearing long underwear?”
    Cleaning lady: “Of course! It is October 7! Aren’t you???!” [It is 27 degrees and sunny in Beijing on this particular day.]
    Me: “Um, no.”
    Cleaning lady: “Foreigners are so strange,” as she mops around my chair.

  5. Han_LI – fantastic!

  6. C. Custer says:

    These are classic. I’ve found that in the rural area my wife is from up north, foreigners are so rare many people assume that I am a Uyghur. Now, I look basically nothing like a Uyghur, but they’re so convinced that a foreigner wouldn’t show up in their town, and I’m obviously not Han Chinese, so somehow Uyghur is what they end up with.

    In cities up there, they often assume you’re Russian, too. I used to walk into restaurants in Harbin all the time and get handed menus that were completely in Russian (which, of course, I can’t read a word of).

    It can happen even in big cities if you find the right place, though. I once walked into one of those little hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Xi’an and sat down. The whole place was packed and pretty loud, but it suddenly went deathly silent (punctuated by some shocked gasps) when I started to order food, and then again when the food arrived and I picked up the chopsticks and began eating it. It was weird, you’d expect people in Xi’an to have seen lots of foreigners speak Chinese and use chopsticks given how many people visit there, but I guess I just happened to find the right place. On that trip I ate at probably three dozen restaurants in six or seven different cities and that was the only one where that happened. Odd.

  7. C. Custer says:

    Oh man, I forgot by far my favorite conversation ever, though. This was while I was in a cab in Harbin, during the 2008 Olympics.

    Cabbie: So where are you from?
    Me: America.
    Cabbie: No you’re not.
    Me: …Um…what? Why not?
    Cabbie: You’re not fat enough. Americans are all very fat.
    Me: Not all Americans are fat.
    Cabbie: Oh yes, Michael Phelps!

    (Cabbie then launches into a rant about how Michael Phelps is amazing at swimming).

    For those who weren’t in China during the Olympics, this is basically how every cab ride for Americans went. Often, the conversation was this simple:
    Cabbie: Where are you from?
    Me: USA
    Cabbie (really excited): MICHAEL PHELPS!!!!!

  8. Han_LI says:

    I got it all when I was living in Urumqi, and I often heard people referring to me as 老毛子 lao maozi, an old pejorative for Russians. My Chinese and Mongolian friends took so much pleasure in this, that it became my affectionate nickname, which I have yet to shake.

    In smaller cities in Xinjiang I got Tatar, Dai, Miao, Hui, Manchu, Kazakh, Mongol, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik…pretty much everything except for Uyghur. People out there just couldn’t fathom that a foreigner could speak Chinese better than many of the minorities who live in remote parts of Xinjiang. Many people thought I was a minkaohan 民考汉 from one of the many minorities that live out there, or some other remote minority that was foreign enough to still be a Chinese national, but not a Han Chinese. Quizzical and confused looks abound!

  9. Iain Manley says:

    I’m a white South African, which has its own set of Chinese stereotypes.

    “Are you American?”
    “No, I’m South African.”
    “No really, I’m South African.”
    “No you’re not. Africans are all black.”
    “Actually there are lots of white people in South Africa.”
    “So you are American!”

    Further into conversations, some people mention Nelson Mandela, at which point I ask if they have any idea why he’s famous. That, I think, will surely prove that there are white people in South Africa. But even if people do know why Mandela is famous, they still aren’t happy until I tell them that most of my family is originally from the UK, at which point I become English.

    There is the same disconnect in India, where people hero worship white South African cricket players but maintain that everybody in Africa is black.

  10. Han_LI says:

    Beijing Taxi driver: “So, you are American?”
    Me: “No, actually I am Canadian.”
    Taxi driver: “So you know Da Shan?”
    Me: “Not personally.”
    Taxi driver: “Your Chinese is good, but his is better.”

  11. Luke says:

    Sometimes perceptions can change, as I discover just last Friday:

    Mother-In-Law: You remember our dinner guest from last night?
    Me: Yes.
    Mother-In-Law: She said that last night was the first time she’d ever had dinner with a foreigner. She was very worried because she thought you would smell bad, but she said you didn’t smell at all!

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  13. For me, I get:

    Taxi driver – Where are you from?
    Me – Scotland
    Taxi driver – *checks to see if I’m wearing a kilt, is disappointed*
    Taxi driver – *drives on in silence*

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  15. Potomacker says:

    I encountered one aspect of this phenomenon when I taught in South Korea. There is such a strong connection with ethnicity and language that many people cannot separate the two. It can be that some will look at the foreign face and strain to listen for any ‘English’ that they cannot understand what is being spoken to them in their own language. The flipside was that one Korean-American caught immense grief when he explained to locals that he could only speak a minimum of Korean. “But you must speak Korean; you look Korean.” He lasted there until his contract was over and returned to the USA.
    There are two additional points that I want to make on this. The first is that this is a widespread phenomenon. 75 years ago, a foreign Japanese speaker was a novelty, yet after decades of being exposed to foreigner speakers of their language, most Japanese, certainly the urban dwellers no longer assume that only they speak Japanese, nor that every ethnic Japanese is conversant. The general conservatism of Chinese society might, however, drag out this process of acculturation longer than in other countries.
    I think, though, that it exposes a general anxiety that we can see in so many ways with Chinese society about what it means to be Chinese / Han Chinese. They want to believe that only they use chopsticks because it is a convenient way of highlighting what makes the Han Chinese special. So if foreigners use kuaizi, if they can speak Chinese, if they can read zhongwen, etc. it challenges what the Chinese feel make them special, or superior, even.

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