Even in a city as large as Hangzhou — with over 6 million people — it’s hard to escape your past. My ex-Chinese boyfriend Frank still sat next to me at work in the Chinese Internet company. And far across the West Lake sat remnants of my ex-life in Hangzhou, when, in 2001, I endured four months in an international NGO struggling to be a technical writer.
I wanted to leave that place behind, because, like Frank, it left me with painful memories. A dictatorial Chinese director who blocked me from doing the writing I was hired to do. A European roommate who harassed and humiliated me, in an effort to drive me away from our coworkers. Poor facilities, from the broken washing machine to the dank, windowless basement kitchen filled with crickets. The only thing I could be proud of was that I managed to survive for four months.
So when Camille — a new European volunteer at the NGO — got in touch with me, it was like getting a call from an ex that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to talk to again.
But I did end up talking with her. We had been introduced by a mutual contact from an American NGO that I respected. With John, my Chinese boyfriend, in Shanghai, I had room in my life for friends, even new ones like Camille. And, of course, it wasn’t fair to assume that she would become another painful memory. After all, we did have a lot in common.
“I spent a year in Taipei on scholarship, studying Chinese,” she mused one evening with me, as we walked through the grounds of Zhejiang University after dinner. “That’s where I met Zhang.”
I turned to her with fascination. “Wow, you had a Chinese boyfriend too?”
Camille beamed. “We spent most of that year together. It was incredible.” She sighed.
“So what happened?”
“I was leaving Taiwan, and didn’t know if I would ever return. In the end, Zhang just couldn’t wait for me. So, we broke up.”
I didn’t know what to say, and all that came out was: “I’m sorry.”
The conversation continued, yet I couldn’t help but wonder how that loss impacted Camille’s perspective, especially when we got on the subject of living in China.
I told Camille about my harrowing experience at the NGO she now worked for. “It was a difficult time,” I confessed. “But the one thing that brought me pleasure was the China outside the NGO. Eating noodles on late-night noodle carts. Talking with locals. Making friends. Learning Chinese.”
“Well, that’s easy for you to do.”
I turned to Camille, wondering what it was I had said that got her attention. “What do you mean?”
“You’re one of the foreigners here who speaks good Chinese. It’s easier for you to integrate into life in China.”
“So, you’re saying that it’s impossible to feel comfortable in China without speaking standard, fluent Mandarin?”
“In Mandarin skills, there are some foreigners who are ‘haves,’ and some who are ‘have nots.’ The ‘have nots’ feel isolated. You happen to be a ‘have,’ so it’s hard for you to understand.”
I didn’t want to believe her words. I wondered if they symbolized a disappointment on her part — that her Chinese wasn’t good enough, even after her study in Taiwan. Or represented the difficulty she had in acclimating to life in mainland China.
On the other hand, how could I understand the opposite experience when I spoke fluent Chinese?
The thing is, I did. I spoke no Chinese when I first came to China. I struggled with the typical annoyances foreigners encounter — from the constant stares and the Hellos, like cat-calls, shouted at me on the street, all the way to the fear of speaking a language that existed more in my hand-held dictionary than my mind. And, in truth, I didn’t feel entirely at home in my life in Henan Province. Maybe that’s why I went back to the US to work for a year.
In the end, I came back to China after that year-long break. It wasn’t a comfortable choice. And it didn’t make me feel comfortable at first — especially with my experience at the NGO. But it became comfortable with time.
I didn’t know if Camille would ever feel like she belonged in China. I’m not even sure if I “belonged” in China. But I knew one thing — John and I belonged together, in China.
Do you agree with Camille — that only foreigners who speak excellent Chinese can truly feel integrated, or a sense of belonging, in China? Or are we always outsiders, no matter how good we speak?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.