I'm ending my year long China adventure with I guess what could be called "China detox": aka, lounging around Hong Kong. The nice thing about Hong Kong is that it allows me to reminisce about China while not having to deal with *most* of the frustrations associated with living in China.
So as I am lounging around enjoying friendly people, effective transportation, and fantastic pineapple buns, I'm quickly reading through Peter Hessler's River Town, the story of a young American man teaching English in rural Sichuan as a Peace Corps volunteer. To begin with, anyone who is interested in life in China through a young person's eyes should absolutely read this book. I only have three frustrations with this book. The first is the comments on the back which read: "To come across a Westerner patient enough and tolerant enough to try and understand the immense, exasperating and ultimately loveable entity that is China is always a pleasure." I find this almost demeaning both towards Westerners and China. It doesn't take a Mother Theresa to love China the way Peter Hessler does; I can think of 65 people right off the top of my head who have a similar relationship with China (Fulbright and the Peace Corps do have this in common). Which comes to my second frustration: I could have written this book. Yeah, I wouldn't have had quite the same stories about teaching students whose heads are already filled with propaganda, and I certainly never took a boat where rats crawled all over my face. And obviously living in Shanghai in 2008 and living in rural Sichuan in 1996 are two drastically different worlds. But I could point to a number of pages that explained my exact experience.
I don't want to take the time to explain all of the passages and experiences, such as learning Chinese, getting constantly cat-called, having one's name essentially be "foreigner" or "helloooooooo!" What I would instead like to talk about is my third frustration with this book, which is by no means Hessler's fault: his lack of discussion of not only the racial awareness but also the gender awareness that comes with being a foreigner in China. He talks briefly of women in China, and specifically about relationships between men and women in China (and how this overlaps with racial differences). One thing I've learned this year is that racial identity and gender identity are inextricably linked, and I'd like to take this post to talk about my personal experiences with the struggles associated with being a laowai nuzi, or a foreigner woman, in China.
I think my awareness of how most Chinese people see me comes to discussions about Sex and the City. I won't deny that I love that show, but the dangers of exporting such a liberal hyperbole of American male/female relationships became clear to me when Chinese girls began telling me that life in America is very "kaifang" or "open," just like Sex and the City. Statements about this show often are accompanied by a look of both interest and disdain; most Chinese girls admire the independence and openness with which American women can live their lives, but also consider them to be a bit too morally degenerate, which is why Chinese society is better. At first, I found these statements funny, but this quickly became something that made me incredibly angry and defensive. As a woman who is quite proud of my independence and my personal choices, I hated being pigeonholed into this "morally degenerate" category. But it seemed like a losing battle; for everyone I told that this was not the case for even most American woman, 10 other Chinese people would continue to have this same stereotype. Over time, I came to hate that show and the way it represented white American women.
And this stereotype was furthered by advertisements found all over Shanghai. Thinking about it, it is absolutely incredibly how many advertisements depict white women instead of Asian women; it has to be well over half of the advertisements, clearly not indicative of the population. Furthermore, almost all advertisements about lingerie or sexy clothing had white women; advertisements showing good wives or girlfriends in cutesy scenarios were more often than not Chinese. One particular advertisement made me feel naseous; it showed a man and a woman on top of each other, and he is about to touch in her in a way that should be R rated, and not all over the subway (meanwhile, of course, she is all bust). I thought about how the Chinese would react if that girl were not blonde, but instead Zhang Ziyi or some other Chinese star; it would have looked completely out of place. I actually wrote about this when I was writing my thesis last year, as photos in women's magazines from the 1930s had similar patterns of putting white women in more liberal situations. What I argued (and would argue still) is that this allowed the Chinese population to live vicariously in this liberal, modern society without feeling to threatened by too MUCH moral openness. In a sense, they enjoyed the idea of the liberalism, but also wanted to maintain their own standards of morality and culture, and by seeing white women act this way, their own ideas about morality weren't under threat.
Nevertheless, it was frustrating walking around and knowing that this was how everyone saw you. The frustration not only came from the fact that just by looking at my face, people were making assumptions about my own personal life and my moral compass, but that no matter what I did, people would make these assumptions. Furthermore, the steps I took to give off a certain impression of myself in America were no longer valid in China; dressing a certain way made me seem professional and serious in America, while in China it furthered the morally degraded stereotype.
Being a white woman in China also made me aware of the plight of Chinese women. Before I came here, I was well aware of the statistics surrounding underemployment for women, and the importance of getting married for women. But this became a whole new reality as I came to know and love a few Chinese female friends. I had a few discussions with Chinese female graduate students about being a Ph.D. in China. I had heard that when a woman decides in China to pursue a Ph.D., she is essentially deciding to never get married. When I asked other graduate students about this, they would giggle and often awkwardly avoid the question. I came to understand this as tacit acknowledgment of the situation. As a woman planning to pursue her Ph.D., this invariably made me very angry, that women who wanted to think and act independently were punished romantically for their decisions.
At the same time, I also began to recognize the expected behavior of Chinese women. Hessler mentions a certain "xiaojie" that puts on her "cute xiaojie" behavior as she tries to flirt with him. His reaction is one of discomfort and fear. My reaction to such behavior (albeit I am an observer, not an active player in these exchanges) became one of frustration and sometimes disgust. I have learned to approach feminism and gender roles with a balanced attitude; blaming men or blaming women for subtle inequalities really never seemed to help solve any problems, and I have always believed that an active attempt to be more aware of societal assumptions about the roles of men and women would be the best way to change things. However, watching these women "sajiao," the Chinese term for this kind of cutsey childish behavior, whether it be happy cute or pouting cute, made me feel like women were asking to be put in a role of submission. I knew this whole year that logically women should not be blamed for these behavioral expectations, but I found it difficult not to get frustrated when I saw a woman pout by sitting down in the middle of the street and forcing her boyfriend to beg her to stand up, all the while playing up a cutsey pout. I wanted to go and scold this girl, and tell her that this sort of behavior puts her in the position of a child, while her boyfriend takes on a dominant role. I became equally frustrated when I would talk with my neighbor, a bright, mature educated woman with a bright future ahead of her. She and I would have great and insightful conversations, but she fully admitted that she would "sajiao" in front of her boyfriend; sure enough, when they were together, I got to witness the whole show.
I realize as I look at this in retrospect that this is not their fault; this expectation of cutsey-ness is a social expectation that needs to be tackled by all members involved. My disgust, however, also made me look at my own culture. I never particularly liked feminists who burned bras and refused to put on make-up. But by painting my face, or being flirtatious, wasn't I doing similar things? While I don't think of flirting as acting childish, it made me become much more self aware of my exchanges with men, both Chinese and Western.
There were, however, advantages to the intricacies of my gender and racial identity, as oftentimes, Chinese people would see me only as a foreigner and not as a woman. This allowed me access into what some may call the "male world," specifically in terms of academia and politics. At the small archive where I did my research, every afternoon a group of middle aged men would sit around and discuss current events from the newspaper. The other female librarians never participated in these discussions, always busying themselves with other things, but the men actively engaged me in conversation. What did I think about Obama and McCain? America's democratic system? Sarkozy's recent criticism of China's human rights? This not only gave me a way to chat with local Chinese people, but also gave me an in to ask the kinds of questions I wanted to ask about my own research. I found through other conversations that while the hyper-sexual stereotype of Western women probably still existed, many Chinese men actually admired the independence and intelligence of many Western women. I was told on multiple occasions, oftentimes by middle-aged, educated men, that they really admired me, with my giant backpack that I carried myself ("too heavy! too heavy!" they would always tell me), my conversational Chinese, and my research interests.
I guess having this layered identity in China came with its goods and bads, which Hessler ultimately came to accept about his identity as a foreigner in China. There are frustrations with the way we are treated differntly, and the way that just the way we look comes associated with really heavy assumptions about our personality, our behavior, our way of life, and even our country. And when reactions to our identities often come at our benefit, it caused (at least for me) a wave of guilt, knowing that Chinese, or even Chinese women, were treated worse only because of their race, or that I got benefits only for mine.