Posts Tagged With: Gender Relations

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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Weekend Excursion: Yagou Ravine

This weekend, CET organized a trip to Yagou Ravine, a park an hour away from the city. We took a bus from Harbin and made a stop at what looked like a quarry. We walked along a sandy path that passed people cutting into the rocky hills with large machinery, jumped over a ditch by a deserted house, and hiked up a path to a hidden pavilion. In this isolated spot was a etching in a side of a rock wall dating back to the Jin Era (1115-1234 A.D). This era was constructed by the Nuzhen people, who are now referred as the Machurian minority. The stone had two etchings: 1) one of a women sitting, and 2) a man striking downward with a sword..

Rock Etching of a Man Striking the Ground with a Short Sword

After observing the ancient artwork, we walked back to the bus to begin our 3-4 hour hike. We were dropped off at the beginning of the trail, that was lined with a large lake. The scenery was covered with mist–or pollution, I couldn’t tell.

Island of Bare Trees

The trail curved into a forested area. We crossed over an icy part of the lake by bridge and entered a historical site. We were in a section of the pine forest that was dotted with old Japanese bunkers from one of the 20th century wars. I inspected one of them and found its floor covered with trash.

Looking into one of the Bunkers

We continued on our hike. The smell of pine was refreshing. We climbed up one of the hills and looked out to scenery of rolling tree-covered hills and plains of yellow grass. In the distance was a tower which was our last rest stop. We hiked for another hour…talking, singing, whistling, enjoying nature, telling stories and then finally arrived at the fire watch tower.

Final Rest Stop

The tower was frail and old. It drifted back and forth with the wind. Because of its lack of integrity, only three people were allowed to go up at a time. I joined two guys and climbed up to the top. While I was climbing up the stairs, the Chinese roommate among the two, kept on worrying about my safety–telling me to slow down, to be careful, make sure that I’m not scared. It got on my nerves, since he wasn’t worrying about my male classmate and assumed, since I’m a girl, I must be easily frightened. I understood that his concerns were well-intentioned, but the feminist in me began to swell.

I let his concerns slide and reassured him that I was perfectly fine, and that I was not afraid of heights. He was surprised. At the top, the scenery was spectacular.

Red, Greens, and Yellows

The two guys were getting ready to head back down, while I was still taking pictures. The Chinese roommate told me, “Colleen, how about you get in the middle so that I can protect you.” That was the last straw. With all of my strength, I tried to sound as polite as possible: “I don’t want your protection, I can take care of myself, you go down first, I’ll follow behind.” He understood and from then on, he was surprised at how courageous I and the rest of my American females classmates were. For instance, I joined my male classmates as they hiked along the rocks that lined the top of the hill (the picture above shows the line of rocks). The Chinese roommate was impressed. His way of thinking is arguably influenced by the Chinese traditional way of treating the opposite sex: girls are weak and need a man to protect them, etc. I’m not insinuating that I can do ANYTHING myself, but climbing stairs is not situation in which I need someone to protect me.

That small moment really opened my eyes to male-female relations in China. In America, the word “protection” is not used often in that context. If a man in America told me, “I want to protect you.” I would feel awkward and perplexed. Protect me from what? Dragons? In China, that’s not the case. I apologize for the rant…now back to my day!

At the Edge of the Rock Ledge with Tower Behind me

I sat at the edge of the rocky trail until I heard my resident teacher call out to everybody that we were leaving. I teeter-tottered and climbed along the rocks to get back to the group. We then descended back to ground-level and walked along harvested farmland till we reached the bus. Somehow a classmate and I squeezed in a medley of Bohemian Rhapsody before getting on the bus and setting off back to Harbin.

Blown over Corn

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