Looking Different

Today, there’s a middle-aged man waiting at the bus stop. My guess is, he isn’t used to seeing foreigners, because he is staring at me, in that open way I suspect is reserved for exotic animals and white girls. He keeps staring. I look him right in the eyes, and he keeps staring, unfazed. I look away, and I can feel his eyes on me. What is he thinking?

I move behind a wall of the bus shelter. He walks right around it and keeps staring. He actually keeps this up for about three minutes flat.

I want to tell him, “I feel uncomfortable when you stare.” (Especially when it’s a man!) But isn’t curiosity about foreigners a good thing? It is in theory. It is, but it makes me feel like I’m in a zoo.

When I walk down the street, people toss out “Hellos” left and right. The first day I arrived, my roommate said, “Don’t answer them. It’s rude.”  “Is it?” I asked. Then I found that “Hellos” have numerous meanings. Mostly, it just means “Hey, you’re white!” Often, it means “Buy my fruit!” “Take my taxi!” Sometimes, people yell “Hello!” and crack up. They’re laughing at themselves, but I feel that my language is the joke.

I went to visit my roommate’s hometown, and when we walked through an alley of pottery sellers, I got the regular chorus of “Hellos”. Translating this as “Buy my stuff,” I smiled and walked on by, but my roommate said, “Hey, you should answer them!” I had become the rude one.

Once teenage girls crept up to me on the beach, when I was in a pack of colleagues, and shouted “Hello!” very loudly. I responded by saying 你好 (hello in Chinese). They screamed in shock.

I arrive at work and walk up to the elevator. The cleaning ladies are standing around, chatting. They get into the elevator with me. “Morning!” one of them says, cracking herself up and giving me a hug. I smile back.

Then, one of the ladies reaches out and grabs my hair. Does she know she’s making me uncomfortable? She strokes my hair and discusses it with her friend, whose hair looks exactly like mine.

I simply don’t understand – is someone being rude? And if they are, how should I respond? And if someone truly is being rude, how can I tell them how I feel? I’m at sea in a series of social signals I can’t make sense of.

And, despite all those things, how can I deal with my own feelings about how people see me? Simply relishing the attention, as many foreigners here do, feels off to me. First, I don’t honestly enjoy it. And second, even if I did, the attention itself feels a bit unfair.

I would like to show people that Canadians are friendly and nice, and like China.  But I can’t decide when to play along with how people treat me, and when not to.


A Chat With the Global Times

Were you aware that Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. credit heralds the fall of Western political systems? No? This Global Times editorial may have the weak  title of “World politics enters uncharted territory,” but it’s hard to miss what the author really wants to say with passages like:

The West can no longer cover up its problems. Large numbers of immigrants have poured into the West; an aging population is bringing escalating pressure on the economy; the rising of emerging powers is challenging Western dominance. However, the West only tries to deal with these problems by highlighting past achievements.

Sub in “China” for “the West” in that one and I think we’d have a publishable American editorial, no? Oh, Global Times, the U.S. has its troubles. So do we all, and it seems that we all like to avoid discussing them by debating the shortcomings of our frenemies.

Western countries are losing the authority of their system. All the major powers have their own problems. The world is losing its leading examples.

Who might take their place, Global Times?

It is hard to predict what this means for China. For the country, the key is to take control of the direction of its reform and avoid serious mistakes.

Well, kudos for the false modesty, Global Times. But what this editorial is building, even if with a number of twisted truths, is an unabashed narrative of Western decline and Chinese ascendance.

From the American press, I learned that the Chinese state is too authoritarian to survive and will soon collapse. Now, from the Chinese press, I learn that “the West” is equally unstable, no doubt soon to implode from sheer arrogance. Oh dear.

Where does this schadenfreude come from? Part of it is in history, and China’s long past of dealing with foreigners who took every opportunity to abuse the country, extract its wealth and demean its people. China’s resurging wealth and stability, then, is a hugely satisfying, and fair ending to a tragic story.

The only problem with that narrative is how blind it can make you to things that don’t fit in neatly. Like China’s own problems, the U.S’ own successes and good ideas. Is it so hard to admit that both nations have huge successes and failures? And both could learn from one another?

This Floating Life

Now the heavens and earth are the hostels of creation;

And time has seen a full hundred generations.

Ah, this floating life, like a dream…

True happiness is so rare!

Li Bai, “On a Banquet with my Cousins on a Spring Night in the Peach Garden”, “春夜宴诸从弟桃园序.”

Tang poetry, full of brief but deep friendships and obsessive love for alcohol, has an affinity with expat life in modern China.

Last night I went out with some new friends. We went out for pizza, spoke English or Chinese depending on what we wanted to say, and went to a karaoke palace. As I rode home I watched the street vendors lining the street and felt that I was floating on the surface of this country, this life.

China is wonderful for me. It’s cheap. It’s fascinating. How much of expat joy is about the country’s culture, and how much of it is about the privilege we enjoy here?

A Chinese Sex Shop in a Typhoon

The remnants of Typhoon Muifa are pouring over Dalian today. The streets are rivers and my entire department is skipping work, since the whole area around my office building is flooded (Some people actually are going to work, but I’m not sure how exactly. Fords?)

On the way home from the grocery store, I noticed that the neighbourhood sex shop was still open. I’ve been curious about these shops for a while, but due to my reputation, as a foreign girl, of being promiscuous, I’ve avoided approaching them. But today nobody was around.

There are a couple of striking things about these shops: their tiny size and ubiquity. These mini-sex shops are scattered all over the city (there are about four or five in my neighbourhood alone). This is very unlike Montreal, where the sex shops can mostly be found on one block downtown.

The goods are probably easy for the shopkeepers to get, since China manufactures 70% of the world’s sex toys. Online porn may be censored, the state of sex ed may be miserable (a student told me that during the procedure of getting her marriage license, she had to watch a sex ed video for the first time in her life), but sex shops seem to be booming business in my neighborhood.

And in 2004, a survey showed that only 21% of Chinese men could find the clitoris…well, that suggests an enormous educational (and business) opportunity to me.

This is what I knew, but I hadn’t really prepared for the reality of what a sex shop looks like when it’s a mom-and-pop business in a poor country.

I yelled from outside, “Open or not?”

A lady poked her head out and said, “Come inside, come inside,” so I did…

This sex shop was about 4×4 meters. Two single beds were lined up on the floor and two more beds were suspended from the ceiling. On these beds sat the woman’s family (probably). There were a couple of middle-aged men, a second middle-aged woman, and a beautiful young girl, probably around six, looking rather grumpy. They were clearly packed in in order to wait out the typhoon – but the beds – did they live there as well?

The sex toys/porn were lined up on tiny shelves behind the bunks. I couldn’t really see clearly what they were. The woman asked, “Are you looking for —– (indecipherable Mandarin) or ———-?”

The family looked at me.

I said, “I’m sorry, my Mandarin isn’t too great. I was just curious about your store. I’ll come back another day when the weather is better.”

“Okay,” she said, beaming. I glanced at the little girl – she was staring determinedly into the middle distance.

Then I got the hell out of there. I might be curious about Chinese approaches to sex, but not curious enough to browse in front of a large group of strangers, probably a family.

One half of me says sex toys are just another commodity and it’s cool that the family can make a living this way…and sex toys are great things in their way. But what is it like for a little girl to grow up inside a sex store? Is she embarrassed? Are her friends or family? Is it a high social price to pay for a living?.

UPDATE:  For those of you who have arrived at this post looking to find sex shops in Dalian, just look for these characters: 成人用品, “adult useful items”…. they’re everywhere.

An Immodest Proposal on China’s Gender Imbalance

According to an article published two years ago in the Guardian, there were then over 32 million more men than women in China. The sex imbalance here is the largest in the world and is the worst among under-sixes.

Although gender testing ultrasounds before birth are illegal, the gender imbalance shows that the practice has continued, along with sex-selective abortion. So I sometimes ask my friends and acquaintances about the preference for sons.

I guessed that it was because men might still earn more money on average and would be better prepared to support their parents. Considering the one-child policy, it would be economically rational to choose a son.

When I ask the question, however, that’s not what people tell me. The answer that pops up the most often is a very simple one: “Tradition.”

One of my students, a lawyer, gave me that answer and explained what it meant to her. “At the Spring Festival,” she told me, “I go to my husband’s parents’ home. I don’t go to visit my own parents. And when my husband’s parents grow old, we will support them.”

The vast majority of Han Chinese society has, historically, been patrilocal – a new wife joins her husband’s family. Raising a daughter, if looked at from a financial perspective, was like an investment that would never grant you returns, since her labour and children would ultimately belong to her husband. Daughters change families, sons stay. Based on what my student tells me, this basic belief persists.

My students, just today, told me that when a couple marries, the groom generally buys the new house or apartment in which they will live – a sign of his and his family’s strong investment in the marriage.

Looked at from this perspective, a sex imbalance does not reflect differing career prospects but the way that marriage distributes wealth differentially between the sexes.

If husbands and wives were equal financial contributors to their marriages, and supported each set of parents equally, I bet that it would have a significant effect on China’s sex imbalance.

Censorship and Rudeness in China

When I began teaching here, I got this advice from both my boss and from an English teacher who teaches across the road: “Do not, do NOT, ever, bring up politics in the classroom.”

I saw that this was sensible advice (later, my students brought up politics themselves) but I resented it at the time.

Before I moved here, I decided that I would not censor my words. If I did – if, every day, I was constantly putting walls between my thoughts and what I expressed, I knew I wouldn’t be happy living here.

But lately there have been cracks in my attempt to be forthright. Today, in the client lounge, I picked up a book about Ai Weiwei. I was hopeless with the Chinese text but was looking through the photo section.

The lounge manager, a nice guy, came over and asked me what I was reading. He didn’t know who Ai was.

I decided not to shy away from the basic truth of Ai Weiwei’s story.

“He’s a famous artist,” I said. “He designed the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. But in the past few years, he has been defying and criticizing the government. He was arrested recently.”

“Ah,” said my friend. “Smart Chinese people never criticize the government.”

I laughed. I’ve read that the Chinese laugh when they feel embarrassed – and so do I.

“No, I’m serious,” said my friend.

I knew he was serious. I changed the subject, but the atmosphere stayed awkward.

The reason why I felt so uncomfortable, and the reason why my policy of self-censorship might not work out, is the gradient of privilege in that conversation.

I may not be afraid to speak my mind, but that’s because I have freedoms not everyone else has. Why feel proud about that?

Another Fake Apple Store in Lushun

This photo was snapped from a bus as I was heading back to Dalian from the small town of Lushun. I was surprised to see one of these fake stores in such a tiny city – really a district of Dalian.  

My LB didn`t believe it was fake, but luckily I had read Language Log and could reliably inform her that real Apple stores never put text on their storefronts. (Not that “Apple Orchard” was a convincing name). My LB gave me a hint as to why this store bothered to steal Apple’s store design: “If I realize something is fake,” she said, “I’ll never buy it.” (The merchandise might not necessarily be fake, actually, because Chinese stores are allowed to resell Apple stuff if they apply for a permit successfully. It’s the copying of the store design that’s illegal).

I hear officials have started cracking down on these stores back in Kunming. I don’t know how they’d manage in Dalian, because I’ve seen two or three since I got back to Dalian and I don’t even wander far from my apartment.