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?!
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.
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.