As I arrived at my departure gate in the Seattle airport, I glanced around and did a double take. I was almost completely surrounded by Chinese people. The few other Americans who showed up for the flight were being observed fairly closely. I scanned the people nearest to me and realized that I was not drawing the same kind of attention. It puzzled me but in the face of an exhausting 12 hour flight it fell to the back of my mind.

Then on one of my first mornings at IES I went out to find an ATM. John, one of the RA’s,  had taken me the day before but I, as many people can attest, don’t have a really great sense of direction in places I’ve only been a few times. Needless to say I got really lost but up until I passed the same apartment building three times no one looked at me twice. Old women doing Tai Chi, old men smoking, students buying breakfast, people running in the early morning air and until I started to actually look lost they more or less dismissed my presence.

Did I not look American? The last time I was here every Beijing person was able to immediately brand me a foreigner but now I seem to be, well, the norm. They looked at me and saw that I looked like a typical young Chinese college student and then went about their business. I was, for the first time in my life, part of the majority. I’m used to being one of those diverse people in America, primarily by virtue of my ethnicity and looks; in China, I am one of millions of black haired brown eyed Chinese. Even my height is normal. Only my tanned skin is the outward clue to me being a lǎowài (a term for foreigners).

Interestingly enough the Asian stereotype from home exists in a similar form here. Because I look Chinese (because I am), every Chinese person I meet thinks I’m a native…until I open my mouth and speak that is. My ability to speak Mandarin well plummets when someone asks me a question that sounds like gibberish to me. “对不起, 我 是 中文 学生. 我 听不懂” (I’m sorry, I’m a Chinese language student. I didn’t understand what you said) I respond. Then they do one of several things: smile knowingly and then start talking about me in Mandarin as if I don’t speak any, look very confused, or give me a disapproving look. They don’t really get the idea of a Chinese looking person who can’t speak perfect Mandarin, or other Chinese dialect. That’s the confusion bit. The other two reactions stem from that Asian stereotype again. As someone who is ethnically Chinese, I am expected to have perfect Chinese and when it is clear that I don’t, they judge me for it. Just like in America, assumptions and expectations are placed upon me based upon nothing but how I look ethnically. So while I don’t get blatantly stared at or get my picture taken by random passing strangers like me American looking friends, I stand out in a different way. I admit it’s a very strange thing to consider. As a result, I made a new goal for myself this trip. By the end of my stay in China, when someone asks me a question thinking I’m a native I will speak well enough that they will still believe it when they walk away.

Bonus picture: Me leaving for the first of my two flights to China IMGP0262

6 thoughts on “Parallel Universe

  1. Susan

    I love reading about your adventures, Lila! I know that there have been some snafus in plans, but it will all turn out well in the end! What a fantastic experience you are having!

  2. Jan Nissl

    Lila – I love reading about your experience in China. Thanks for all the descriptions and your interpretations. Disney in the dessert sounds just like you put it – a conundrum but worth seeing.
    Take care!


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