Daily Conversation Class

Me: Hello.

Street Vendor/Police Officer/Taxi driver: Russian?

Me: No, I’m Canadian.

SV/PO/TD: Wow, your Chinese is great! Very standard!

Me: Thank you.

SV/PO/TD: And you’re very beautiful!

I have had at least 15 conversations that follow this exact script over the past few days.

At first, having this conversation left me feeling great – it never feels bad to be complimented – but after conversation #10 or so it was hard not to wonder why so many people reacted to me in the same way.

Once you have decided how to respond to the compliments (I go with xiexie or “thanks”, although the old-fashioned way in Mandarin to respond to compliments is  “where, where?”, in order, I suppose, to deny the praise), the conversation reveals a couple of things that are a little more complicated than generosity to an outsider.

“Your Chinese is great!” –

I like the encouragement, but what it really says is that most foreigners in Dalian speak no Chinese. (I only have to say something beyond ‘hello’ to get a compliment). There’s nothing wrong with being in China and not speaking the language – it’s still a great experience and you can do a lot in the right context – but shouldn’t it tip the other way, that most foreigners in Dalian (not a touristy city by the way), can say some basic phrases?

“You’re beautiful-”

Subjective judgment of course – but the other day I met my roommate’s mother, who informed me that I was a beauty because of my pale skin and blue eyes. (I promptly ruined the “pale skin” part by getting a terrible sunburn at the zoo). Whiter-than-white skin is big here, and carrying an umbrella in the sun is a must.

It was kindly meant, but the compliment, along with “Hellos” on the road, makes me feel like I’m being drawn in and pushed out at the same time, considered “beautiful” because I look different. Even though I’m counting my blessings, it seems a tad unfair.

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