Peter Hessler and laowai nuzi

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.


  1. standards for fulbright must have lowered

  2. Terrific post. As someone who's spent three years in China, one as a Fulbrighter, you sum up both many of my experiences and many of my own frustrations with Hessler's limitations (despite his everyday insights).

    Now I have to go back and read the rest of your blog...

  3. there is one other aspect to your final point about being considered as a foreigner as opposed to a woman in certain situations. I found that while it held true, you always had to remember that could be moved between categories at the convenience of your companions: the men who seek out your opinion one day might the next relegate you to the women's lunch table. Your perceived identity/role was whatever was socially expedient at any point in time. I found this to be deeply frustrating: on an intellectual (and occasionally, professional) level, I could be engaged with as an equal, on a social/familial level, gender would be paramount.

    regarding the increased awareness of gender relations in the west: it's almost shocking, isn't it? And the mind, stretched by a new idea, never retains its original shape. Ah; I'm looking forward to getting back to East Asia post haste. Thanks for a great post, and opportunity to reflect.

  4. You write:

    " ...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 ... [W]hen 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."

    With all due respect, I think you are quite off-base here. Speak to any Chinese or foreign man who has been on the receiving end of a so-called 'cutesy pout' from a Chinese woman, and you will have your understanding of who is dominant in that situation, and who is submissive, rearranged. Sajiao is a potent power play, and men are expected to - and do - submit to it - especially in Shanghai, where womean are - quite famously - the dominant party in romantic relationships. Submit, in this case, is the proper word.

  5. Adam - fair enough, men are "required" to submit to this behavior.

    However; the woman only has power in so far as her male companion does submit: if he does not, she has debased herself and placed herself in a throughly subservient/submissive position with no return.

    While it is a power place, playing sanjio isn't power at all; it's giving away power in the hopes of a return. That many men respond to such behaviour does not mean that the behaviour, in and of itself is powerful. It's allowing the male partner set the tone/power of the interaction; not the other way around.

  6. Wow.

    Imagine if I spent a couple of years in the USA and based my impressions of race relations and gender relations in that fine nation on talking to some really dumb people. Say, students who had never traveled and who had severely limited life experience (i.e. the vast bulk of college students in the USA).

    I imagine, that after those couple of years I would also complain (if I were really, really annoyingly shallow) about the crappy (or nonexistent) public transport, the vapidity of the supposedly "free" media, and the daily hijacking of the national conversation by what are frankly private religious matters.

    Stupid, huh?

    But isn't that _exactly_ what this post is, except the subject is China?

    Race relations ISN'T defined by migrant workers saying "Hellooo!" at you. Gender politics ISN'T defined by conversations about TV shows.

    Three point plan:
    1. Get some more intelligent friends.
    2. Improve your shitty Chinese so you can talk to these friends and not have your opinions sound like the huffy pronouncements of an 8-year old.
    3. And for god's sake get out more.

    I say these things with the greatest of respect and love, of course.

  7. That's really a long and interesting post!

    "I had heard that when a woman decides in China to pursue a Ph.D., she is essentially deciding to never get married."

    This is exaggerating far too much! Chinese women being independent is nothing new in China nowadays. Most Chinese men born in and after late 1970s like independent Chinese women. Independent Chinese women are simply more attractive.

    With regard to the 'Sajiao' situation described, I agree with Adam's comment. Chinese women is the dominant side.

  8. Ralph -

    Submissive in whose eyes? If you mean, submissive in the eyes of hyper-educated foreigners with no experience of romantic relationships in China - well then, yes, you're right.

  9. Thanks for being honest about your experience. I wonder what kind of response this would get if translated on the Chinese internet.

    I agree that having people make assumptions about your lifestyle based on your race or nationality can be extremely annoying. But let's be realistic -- in this case their assumptions are probably generally accurate: unless you are among the minority of Westerners who deliberately and successfully wait until their wedding night to have sex, you are morally degenerate according to conventional Mainland Chinese standards. They might not care about the wedding night in that way, but the husband (and everyone else) expect the wife to be a virgin when she sleeps with her husband for the first time. In fact, sexual expectations aside, I wonder if the admired independence of American women might also seem degenerate just for the relationship it necessitates with one's parents (and suggests a relative lack of concern for them).

    One of my language teachers said Chinese women with Ph.Ds were "China's third gender." She explained that Chinese men generally don't want to marry someone of equal status; they prefer someone a notch down. According to her, many Chinese women hold conflicting feelings about this. The students in a university sex ed class we volunteered with held similar opinions: the guys wanted a wife who was "not too smart" and the women wanted a husband who was "not too handsome." That way their wives won't be able to outsmart them and their husbands will be less likely to score with potential mistresses.

    And I agree with some of the other commentors: sajiao, while demeaning, should be understood primarily as a manipulative powerplay, at least from what I can see.

    ps - I linked to your post here.

  10. I agree with Adam and Hang, since I had enough male friends who got pushed around just by this technique and were frustrated, but never the less dominated by it.

    Your post is really good and I enjoyed reading it, since I identified similarities with my personal experiences.

    In respect to the role of Western women in China and the contradictions: I realized (and many other researchers too) that in Chinese culture opposites can both be called right although they obviously contradict each other.

    I am looking forward to read more about you and your observations!

  11. I think a little perspective is required..it seems disingenuous since this problem exists for Asians in the US, with the submissive Asian woman stereotype or Asian men who are seen as stereotypical perpetual emasculated foreigners or kung-fu fighting madmen (16 Candles, etc) Change a few words (the world "white women" with "Asian male" and replace "China" with the "United States") and the article would still be relevant.

  12. I appreciate all of the comments posted here, especially about the "sajiao" behavior. It may be considered a power play, but I still think it says something that women must be manipulative and act this way in order have any power to play at at all. This, I guess, happens in the United States as well. I've heard others say that, in a similar vein, women can use their sexuality as a play for power.

    I would like to point out on Joel's post about the accuracy of these stereotypes. I think it is quite presumptuous to say that American women always have sex before marriage while Chinese women don't. I knew just as many Chinese girls living with their boyfriends as I knew Western women (mind you, this is Shanghai and Hong Kong, but things are certainly changing) and I know plenty of American women who wait. Absolutely we are more open minded, and more liberal, about sexual behavior than in China. But there is a huge difference between being slightly more liberal about sex and being Carrie on Sex and the City. I don't necessarily blame China for that, and while I enjoy American media, the image we put forth for the world often frustrates me.

    And finally, to Kint, I agree these kinds of frustrations can be seen all over the world. I'm just writing about my own.

  13. Interesting take on the issue of morality and popular culture in China...

    My take is simple that there is moral confusion in China; all through the Cultural Revolution, Chinese people were told that the west, especially America, was morally degenerate. Now, capitalism has come to the fore, which implies that western values are to the fore. In turn, this implies that the supposed moral degeneracy of the west is now acceptable, even encouraged. This in part explains the moral free-for-all in modern urban China.

    Don't you just love China?

  14. Ed,
    I think it is a bit more complicated than that. I did some research last year on women's magazines in the 1930s, and there was similar struggle going on: how do we keep and maintain our own culture while also moving ourselves into the modern world? And while the Communists certainly turned everyone against capitalism, capitalism does not equal moral standards. In fact, when it came to women's rights, the Communists were far more radical than the nationalists before them, and even more radical than gender policy today.

    I think what is happening now is just trying to balance a lot of the identity crises that come with growing into the modern world. And while morality is a tricky subject, I am happy to see a lot more gender awareness going on. I hope that trend continues.

  15. "Sajiao" is akin to all those romantic silliness that happens between couples. Best not to read too much into it.

    Seems like an odd place to pick a fight on feminism.

  16. You think Chinese girls are cutesy? I agree and I hate seeing women pull that sitting on sidewalk with their face in their hands stunt while their boyfriends tried to get them to be reasonable.

    But you should try living in Japan, where the majority of my female students aspired to be air hostesses (because air hostesses are always pretty, ergo they will then officially be pretty) and marry rich men, where grown women walk knock kneed because it's "kawaii" (cute) and simper in baby voices (also kawaii) and Japanese men are too embarrassed to date Western women because their friends will think they're pussy-whipped. I had to leave before I went mad.

  17. Interesting experiences. Fascinating to hear about western woman's time in China. If you are frustrated about how the western media shows Chinese how western women are, think about what Chinese assume a young American white male is supposed to act!! As a traditional conservative male it was hilarious to be told by my wife's neighbor (my wife was my girlfriend at the time of this example) that we should just live together and you can save a lot of money. What I thought would be a somewhat traditional Chinese woman (the neighbor) turned out to be as modern as a liberal westerner! Her excuse was, "everybody does it nowadays!" But of course if everybody in China took western movies and shows at face value... everybody in China would think that everybody in America was in prison and trying to break out! HA HA HA HA

    Totally understand your frustration!

  18. I want to touch upon Kint's point a little bit. Being a Chinese American woman, my experience in America is not unlike yours, although I am actually American and not a foreigner living in my own country.

    People everywhere, be it China or America, tend to view others who are different and who they are not familiar with, through stereotypes. Many Chinese have not interacted with enough non-Chinese to understand that once you peel away the outward differences, people are all pretty much the same inside. People, be it American or Chinese, all have similar dreams and aspirations and shortcomings.

    Same thing could be said about some Americans, esp those who are from predominantly white areas, sometimes I want to smack them for the stereotypes they hold for Asian American men and women. What excuses do we have in this country? We are a country of immigrants. We did not close ourselves to the world for fifty years and yet the stereotypes for Asian American men and women, they are pretty appalling.

    Oh yeah, American women professionals, like myself, face difficult choices between career and family too.

    Anyways, we all have a long way to go.

  19. Gina Ann:

    Thanks for your comment.

    My post wasn't really gender-focussed, my point relates to men and women in China.

    Also, I don't really know what you mean when you say 'capitalism does not equal moral standards'.

    In my experience, Chinese people often DO to some extent believe that 'moral' standards are significantly different in western countries. For example, there is a persistent belief in China that western countries are a kind of sexual free-for-all. I have also met many Chinese people who strongly aspire to this perception of western behaviour.

    In discussing this phenomenon with other long-term China residents in my circle, there is broad agreement that it seems that the cultural revolution propaganda and prejudices are still resonating. It isn't hard to see that the result of these inaccurate beliefs coupled with the political about-turn of the last 30 years, is confusion over what to aspire to: is everything that was once bad now good, if not, which parts?

    It is easy to see how any attempt to deal with this issue brings the Chinese approach to mass communication into sharp relief, at which point the discussion gets into deep water.

    The issue in China is not simply how to integrate traditional morality into a modern world view, it is also the issue of what people believe and where those beliefs come from. In a country with a history of extensive propaganda, what many Chinese believe to be the world view resulting from their traditional culture and history may in fact turn out to be largely manufactured.

  20. The question is, why must women be "sajiao" to get what they want from their boyfriend? Would asking directly, as a man would, seem too direct or bossy? So is being "sajiao" a way to make men feel dominant, even when they are submitting? This way, perhaps the man can feel that he is submitting to the request of a petulant child rather than submitting to an equal.

  21. I could have written this post.

    (See how obnoxious that sounds when someone says it about your work?)

  22. I think it's abit exagerrated to say that femlae PHD students can't get married in China. However, it is true that it's harder for them to do so.