People Assume We’re ‘Foreigner & Translator’ in China; Sometimes, We Just Go With It

“Where is she from?”

“The US.”

“How long has she been in China?”

“For some time.”

“Where does she live?”

“Around here.”

I listened to the dialogue, in Chinese, between my husband Jun and the hairdresser trimming my chestnut brown tresses. But even though I was fluent in Mandarin and could easily have responded to every question, I remained silent, resting in my chair while wearing a shy smile.

It was easy to appear abashed because I genuinely felt that way, wondering, What if they all really knew the truth? And every now and then Jun and I swapped knowing grins, in recognition of the success of our “performance” that very evening.

Once again, we played “foreigner and translator” for a captive audience — and nailed it.

“Foreigner and translator” are the roles my husband and I adopt for certain public situations in China, where I pretend to be just another outsider who can’t speak Chinese, and my husband the local providing language assistance.

It’s actually an easy sell in China, where marriages between Western women and Chinese men still remain overwhelmingly rare. Instead, when people see me and Jun in public places, they automatically assume the man at my side serves as hired linguistic support, rather than a romantic partner.

While it might seem strange to engage in this subterfuge in a public place, like a hair salon, it has its benefits.

First of all, if people know we’re a couple, it immediately piques their curiosity, because they probably never saw a Western woman married to a Chinese man before. The surprise triggers a cascade of questions, including some that get intrusive — and which we’d rather avoid. “Foreigner and translator” helps us to sidestep a lot of awkwardness.

Plus, sometimes I just want to unwind — to savor the scalp massage and stylist’s work — instead of getting grilled about my life. So with Jun as “translator” I can just relax and be the “foreigner” enjoying the moment.

In the end, the haircut turned out perfect — one of the best I’ve had in years.

Before we walked out the door of the salon, I couldn’t help saying “Xie xie” — thank you — in Chinese, which once again sparked awe from our small audience, remarking how “good” my Chinese was.

Ah, if only you knew, I thought. If only you knew.

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