On Being Chinese-looking in China

Waldo in China sketch from Deep Thinkings

I’m having a conversation (albeit one-sided) with the neighbor about a leak in our ceiling, with the cab driver about the reasons for the traffic, to the butcher about the right cut of meat. In every case, I nod my head, “uh-huh, uh-huh,” hoping that I will glean something from this conversation before it ends, and god forbid, that I will have to respond with some sort of clear opinion about said current topic.

But for the most part, the way it goes, I eventually break the silence and blank stare at the end (usually them waiting for me to say something) with a, “Uh, duibuqi, wo ting bu dong.” Literally, Sorry, I hear, no understand.

Oftentimes this is met with a stare of disbelief and a repeat of the same but with the volume upped several notches. And these are the patient people. Other times, I get a chuckle of contempt, “What, are you stupid?” or of confusion, “Wait, you don’t speak Chinese?”

Here is a typical conversation:
“Where are you from?”
“I’m American.”
“But…what?…I thought… you look…like a Chinese person.”
“Yes, I’m Chinese American.”

When I’m in a good mood (i.e. not feeling like an imbecile), I will brush this disbelief off with a laugh, and explain my family history, the “speech” which I have memorized for these occasions, about how my dad was born in Boston’s Chinatown, about where my 祖籍 [zǔjí] is, and so on. Most understand and give me pitying looks. For others, it is a simple explanation that delays their thoughts that I am, in fact, retarded.

The blank stares and bewilderment and contempt are obviously the low point of these interactions. But sometimes having the “look” can be quite wonderful. I can blend in like no one’s business, even my boyfriend has trouble finding me in big crowds. I can fly under the radar at the markets and browse hassle free, whereas, as soon as I open my mouth, I’m a goner, having given away my safe anonymity.

I work occasionally in the factories of Shenzhen and Dongguan. I roam the factory floors in the middle of the night, peering over hunched shoulders at work being done with smiles of approval, and in return receive quizzical looks that ask, “Why aren’t you at your station? And, what are you doing out of uniform?” (Although, what most probably gives me away is that I don’t yet have that facial glaze of weeks-on-end, repetitive work.)

On the other hand, I love the times when it is the shift change and the factory workers are coming in from their dorm rooms, or from their canteen meal, and I dovetail into the sea of workers going back to the grind. I am literally the black sheep, the only one with a different coloured shirt amongst the flock.

At home, I’ll frequently open the door to a delivery or repair man at the door. Our ayi will quickly come to the rescue, explaining that I’m a “waiguoren,” a foreigner, who couldn’t possibly understand what they want, as if letting me off the hook.

Speaking of getting away with it, I have a lingering resentful feeling (is it guilt?) about the local supermarket beggar who NEVER asks me for money. Who does he think I am? We have embarrassingly locked eyes many times over the years, and not once has he appealed to my charity. Although I am likely not much richer than him, he must assume that I am also a poor peasant, or an ayi! (NOT that there is anything wrong with being an ayi.) This is made even more poignant when the mobile restaurant-patio beggars bluntly stick their hands out to my boyfriend, lingering with stories of woe and despair, as I stand idly by, somehow waiting for them to panhandle in my direction, too. Then, my self-consciousness takes over. Does she think I’m standing there as a kept, gold-digging woman? That I’ve sold out, choosing my new non-yellow friends over my own people? These thoughts could be in my own head, as I stand there feeling slightly ashamed. As you see, I think I’ve developed a complex about this.

It’s a funny thing — I’m not so much in between two cultures, like a 3rd culture kid — I’m a banana, a Twinkie to be more exact, but that’s OK. Every day is an adventure when I can horrify someone with my terrible Chinese, and toss their wide-eyed looks of disbelief off with a big American grin.

Strange Tourism

2 Responses to On Being Chinese-looking in China

  1. Zac says:

    Awesome read. And now I wanna undergo some plastic surgery so that I, too, can avoid the beggar at the supermarket.

  2. chelsie says:

    Its funny how i came across this blog accidentally, because I am in a similar situation like yourself. I feel inspired in knowing that you too deal with this kind of sterotype reaction. Likewise i feel your awkwardness as for i am a TALL, white engligh-speaking teenager who works in a east-asian “Chinese employed” grocery store (Oceans Fresh Food Market). Apart from standing out in my physical appearence, i tend to have to play a game of charades when it comes to communicating with other employees. Aswell as dealing with the reactions of customers asking “How did you get a job here?” “Do you speak Chinese?” and the most common one “Its nice to see a white/ english person working here.” My internal emotions take offence to these comments, although, i understand where their coming from, its irritating and unecassary to hear this constantly. As of now, its been one year and through our broken communication method, ive managed to slightly overcome the language barrier, and learn to speak a few words here and there.

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