Attending the conference in Beijing is the closest I’ll get to feeling like a model — because I’m valued more for my appearance than my intellect. My foreign appearance, that is.
Our company has a booth enviably located near the main entrance and the stairs, guaranteeing just about everyone will pass by. We’ve stacked our tables high with the company’s free manufacturers’ directory — available in exchange for a business card.
Standing behind that table, I want to be more useful than just a face. I help the sales reps unload boxes of directories. I collect business cards, hand out directories, and shake hands, just like everyone else. But in the end, I am still a curiosity, and still largely ornamental — and the attendees can’t help but remind me of it, especially once I speak in Chinese.
“Wow, your Chinese is so good.”
“I didn’t know your company was international.”
“It’s great to see an American here.”
Even the sales reps recognize my symbolic value. During a slow period in the early afternoon, Helen, the sales rep I am rooming with in Beijing, asks me to come with her. “I want you to meet some of my clients.”
In Chinese girl fashion, Helen links her arm around mine, and pulls me down the endless aisles, stopping at her clients’ booths. “This is our foreign expert, Ailin,” she says to them, beaming like a mother proud of her child. We’ll shake hands, smile, maybe even exchange business cards. It’s easy to get lost in Helen’s company, and the experience — because everyone stares at me, as if I am walking down a catwalk.
But in reality, Helen benefits more than I do. Maybe she will leverage these one-time meetings to get her clients to renew their service package with the company. I could just imagine the way she might inject it into the sales pitch: “Don’t forget that we have an American.”
As much as I love helping and working with Helen, and the other sales reps, at the end of the day, I am left with exhausted feet from my heels, and a pile of business cards from people desperately seeking an English teacher, or a foreign face for their business.
In the end, I don’t want to be just another foreign face. I want to be loved and appreciated for who I am — not because I’m a foreigner, but because I’m someone special.
I want John, who will soon join me in Beijing, just before National Day.
Have you ever felt exhausted by being a “foreign face” in China — or elsewhere?
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.