As October 2002 went on, I fell deeper in love with my Chinese boyfriend, John, and found a new sense of belonging through lunches with Zhang Bin.
Yet, was I just fooling myself, to think I could masquerade as a local? I am a foreign woman. My face, hair and larger, curvier body made me a curiosity, no matter how standard my Mandarin pronunciation was.
I wasn’t a curiosity to Jason, an old college classmate of John’s that we met during the National Day holiday, on the way to our favorite restaurant near my apartment. I had met John’s xiongdi — “brothers,” or close friends — once before. Ever since then, I loved knowing anyone with a connection to John, and Jason seemed nice enough. We exchanged phone numbers, with the suggestion we might meet for lunch sometime. “I could practice my Chinese with him,” I whispered to John, as we walked in the other direction down the street, after meeting Jason.
Lunch sometime came Tuesday, October 23, when I suggested we dine at a restaurant that specialized in a style of cooking from Dongyang, a city located in central Zhejiang Province. Jason was an English teacher in Hangzhou. He smiled often at dinner, and enjoyed teaching me new words and sayings in Chinese, while I practiced the language of generosity — as I described the generosity of the Chinese people.
“What do you think of the Chinese?” Jason asked. It was a question I heard many times, but one I answered passionately.
“The Chinese are very magnanimous people.” I blushed at my words, wondering if Jason could feel John’s presence in my answer.
My answer seemed to illuminate Jason’s face, as he slipped into teaching mode for a moment. “Magnanimous — that’s a great word choice. So, tell me, how are the Chinese magnanimous?”
As I imagined John and my closest Chinese friends, I easily gushed about extraordinary kindnesses I experienced in China.
But it’s one thing to speak of John and my friends, and another to speak of an entire people. We’re always forced to answer these questions — what do you think of the Chinese people — and how could we ever give an honest answer. If we were honest, we’d say the Chinese are like any other people: some good, some bad. Depending on your experience, or who you know, or where you’ve been, you may know more good than bad — or more bad than good. But it isn’t scientific or absolute. It is only what you know.
What I had known of Jason, through that lunch, was all good. It was easy for me to speak of the things I loved most — China and cultural understanding. I had built up a wonderful persona for Jason of a foreigner who could see beyond appearances, who cared deeply — and Jason liked what he saw. If only I knew that China and cultural understanding would fail me as we wandered the streets after lunch.
“Hello!” shrieked a little Chinese girl beside the road opposite my office building. She covered her mouth, giggling about it with her friends. It wasn’t the first time someone shouted “Hello” my way. If anything, I should have been used to it. But maybe my lunch, or the conversation, made me forget what it was like to be a curious foreigner worthy of stares. I didn’t like to be singled out all the time, to be something unusual. The girl’s greeting also made me forget the perfect persona I had built over lunch, which I surrendered in one sentence.
“I feel like I’m a zoo animal.”
Jason became the teacher once again, but this time with a disciplinary motive.
“How can you say that? You just talked about the magnanimity of the Chinese, but that was not magnanimous.”
I looked at his eyes, their glance slipping from jocular into judgmental, and I knew I was slipping away in his estimation. I didn’t know what to say — but I didn’t have to, because Jason continued for me.
“Many Chinese people use expressions like that because they can’t speak English. They want to communicate with foreigners, but they don’t know how. You should be magnanimous and try to understand them.”
I understood Jason’s meaning. “I’m sorry,” I said, with quiet contrition. But after I returned to the office — and returned to Jason’s censuring speech over and over in my mind — I couldn’t help but wonder if he could ever forgive, or understand me. I’ll never know, because I never saw him again.
I straddled two continents with a Chinese boyfriend, near-fluency in Mandarin, and a growing connection to China — but that’s not something you can see on my face. To the average Chinese, I’m just another foreign woman who doesn’t speak Chinese, or understand the country.
To be sure, I didn’t understand everything — and I probably never would. But I only hoped that, just sometimes, the people could understand me. John did. My close friends — including Caroline, Swallow and Zhang Bin — did. But not Jason.
Did you ever misunderstand the Chinese — or simply feel misunderstood?
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.