Chapter 25: No Chinese, No American, Just Lunch

Stir-fried chinese vegetables
John, my Chinese boyfriend, wasn't the only one who could make me feel less foreign in China.

When you have a Chinese boyfriend, you have a strange sensation, perhaps the first since your arrival to China — that maybe you’re not so foreign, or so different. The way John spoke to me, and cared for me, made me feel — if only for a moment here and there — that we were equals.

Yet after he left, I began to see that it wasn’t just John who had the capacity to see past my foreign face.

“We shouldn’t see each other as a Chinese and an American.” Those were the words of Zhang Bin, a friend who lived across the street from our office — and who agreed to make lunch with me during the weekdays.

Lunch had been a headache for me ever since I entered the company. The boxed lunches delivered daily to the office were too greasy, and had few vegetables to satisfy a vegan, driving me to find lunch alternatives outside the building. I found them in a variety of restaurants — from a local Zhejiang specialty restaurant to a Japanese noodle house — but usually had to enjoy lunch alone.

I didn’t mind it at first. But when you’re a foreigner, nobody forgets your patronage — and the more you come to a restaurant, the more the servers or restaurant help seem to stare or simply whisper about you. I liked the food, but I didn’t like being on display, all on my own, and desperately hungered for something better.

That’s when Swallow made the suggestion that changed lunches as I knew them forever. “You could try cooking with Zhang Bin. He spends every day at home studying, preparing for the post-graduate exam.”

I had met Zhang Bin — a good Sichuan friend of Swallow’s who shared an apartment with her and her fiancee. He was a reticent, gangly fellow with a who I had barely spoken with, even though he did come to my birthday party this past summer. But he seemed nice enough. “He wouldn’t mind having me around?”

Swallow flashed me her warm, Sichuan smile. “He already has to make lunch on his own. How much trouble would it be to do lunch for two people? I’ll suggest it to Zhang Bin and see what he thinks.”

Zhang Bin loved it. It was hard for me to imagine Zhang Bin getting excited about anything — excitement wasn’t an emotion that I had seen register across his otherwise shy gaze. But it was easy for me to accept a reprieve from the restaurants.

It was more than that, however. Zhang Bin’s kitchen was the antidote for the gratuitous lunchtime stares and whispers of any local restaurant — because Zhang Bin didn’t care that I was a foreigner.

“We shouldn’t see each other as a Chinese and an American. We’re just two friends, working together.”

After that, I crossed the street into Zhang Bin’s kitchen every day for lunch. And, even though my Chinese boyfriend, John, was far away, I could still cross into worlds, and moments, where being a foreigner just didn’t matter.

Have you ever had a moment — or a friend or lover — that made you forget you were a foreigner?


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.

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9 thoughts on “Chapter 25: No Chinese, No American, Just Lunch

  • February 17, 2010 at 5:45 am

    I sometimes forget that my other half is Caucasian. Sometimes when I get up before him in the morning, I would stare and admire his eyelashes and then occasionally I would tell him, “Sometimes I forget that you are a white person.” LOL

  • February 17, 2010 at 7:15 am

    Back in my party days in China, I’d be out with Chinese people I had just met at a random club and we’d all be chummy around a hotpot or wolfing down barbecue, and during those beer-soaked evenings, I’d either feel supremely like a foreigner, when they were all ganging up on me to 干杯 my ass into an early grave, or we’d all be laughing at some silly Chinese joke and I was just another dude out with friends having a good time. Both situations were fine with me :-P.

    • February 17, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      @Priscilla, thanks for the comment! Your thoughts remind me of a conversation my husband and I had, where he admitted the same thing — that sometimes he forgot I was a foreigner.

      @Mark, thanks for sharing! It’s so true that you can go from feeling so foreign, to just another person in China — depending on the company/circumstances. Sounds like you had some good times.

  • February 17, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Great post, I always felt much more at ease in China with the people that did not give me special treatment. It is nice at times, but I often felt like it was hard to really connect with certain people when they could only see me as the guest.

    • February 20, 2010 at 12:45 am

      @Fabrizio, thanks so much for the comment — and glad that it resonated with you. 🙂

      @Gerald, thanks for sharing! How funny! Your experience reminds me of when I first arrived in Shanghai after living in Zhengzhou for a year — I stared incessantly at the foreigners on Nanjing Road, as if I’d never seen one. 😉

      @Friend, thanks for posting your thoughts. It’s so true — the people make the place.

      @Roueen, thanks for weighing in. That’s great you had that kind of experience in China.

  • February 17, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Sometimes, I forget that *I* am a Caucasian… I have become so used to having almost only Chinese faces around, I can manage to wonder about my own face being so different, after all, when I see it mirrored somewhere.
    The reaction to some of the (many, other) foreigners in Shanghai, after a year in Hunan, was also “my, that one’s so tall” 😉

  • February 18, 2010 at 2:12 am

    Sounds nice that a lot of you all had a warm memories in China. I always remind myself whenever I travel to different places around the world that no matter the buildings, entertainment venues, scenery or food, it’s really the people that can turn anything small to big, or big to small, beautiful or ugly.

  • Pingback:Chapter 26: Hello, Foreigner – and Goodbye, Generosity | Speaking of China

  • February 18, 2010 at 4:03 am

    actually many Chinese people never think about your nationality. when you are in a party with them, they can accept you a friend and I have never seen, that they care about the nationalities .


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