Thoughts From an “Old Foreigner:” Sense of Having Privacy in a Crowd

“Old foreigner, or laowai (老外), is a somewhat derogatory term that describes a foreigner in China. For most expats, we play with this identity by calling ourselves, laowai. Might as well embrace how Chinese view us, because this perception won’t change…our physical differences will always separate us from “being Chinese.” At times, this sense of separation hurts, since I want to understand Chinese culture, immerse myself in the everyday life of Harbiners or Kunmingers…but this separation also brings about understanding of difference (foreignness) that protects me from being judged. For instance, I took off a pair of pants the other night in a restaurant because I was wearing a dress underneath. That action of taking clothes off in public is “weird,” but no one really took notice or cared. “It’s a foreigner thing.”

If a person approaches me that I do not want to talk to, I can pretend to not understand and go on my way. I can make funny faces, laugh loudly, and joke around without worrying about being “graceful and subdued (婉约).” This is a popular behavior that men like in Chinese girls, also can’t forget the cuteness factor ( that often leading to ending sentences with “a” “o” “bei” “la”). I don’t need to worry about these expectations, I am free from Chinese cultural norms because I am different. In this sense, I feel free.

This brings me to my other observation: Sense of Being Alone in an Endless Crowd. When an American thinks of China, one of the few things he/she thinks of are “the crowds:” The streets that are crowded like sardines, the outdoor super-sized pools that are filled wall-to-wall with inflatable tubes, the beaches are also a mad-house of colorful umbrellas and beige bodies. This perception of China, is at times trues–train stations during the Spring Festival, morning/night markets (see picture below)–but the crowds are not to that extreme. However, wherever you are in Chinese cities, there are always people around…a lot of people. The most common phrase I hear Chinese people say is “人太多” “There are too many people.”  And it is true.

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Picture taken in Dalian, Liaoning Province: Crowd at Morning Market

Though there are ALWAYS people around, I have noticed that it has made Chinese people more distant from each other. From the pushing/shoving/pumping on buses without any care of the person you pushed, to singing loudly on the street without anyone giving you any notice. Even though you are always surrounded by people, a Chinese person still has privacy in public simply because everyone is in their own little bubbles, surrounded by a billion of other little bubbles. At least, this is what I have observed.

Since I am not Chinese, I get a completely different experience here. EVERYONE stares at me and I feel like I don’t have any privacy. People are curious about what “the foreigner” is doing, what is she saying in Chinese, what is she buying, what is she reading? I’ve gotten used to it. But, sometimes when I’m walking about campus, I observe a college student walking by himself around campus (maybe to his dorm or class), singing a pop tune loudly to himself. He wears a thick winter jacket, his eyes are looking down to the snowy sidewalk as he sings. His notes freeze into the frigid air. I feel envious for his privacy. He isn’t different, he is simply another face in the crowd, and thus is ignored by the others. I will not feel that kind of freedom.

What does it feel like to live in a country that has “too many” people, to the point that its leads to everyone distancing themselves from each other. I only experience the outer layer of it all as a foreigner.

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