I swivel in my blue plastic bus seat to find an elderly man, faced creased with kind wrinkles, the kind you might get from excessive smiling. He is smiling now as he addresses me once again.
“Are you Chinese?”
“No,” I say. “I’m a foreigner.”
Half of the time I confess my national origin is different from that of the people around me. The other half of the time I tell people that I’m a 新疆的少数民族, that I’m a minority nationality from Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China where the central Asian minority inhabitants have comparatively pale skin and European-esque facial features. Sometimes people buy it, sometimes they don’t. This time, I went for simplicity.
We got into a conversation, the roll call of questions that every foreigner in China is asked coming at me in predictable rhythm. By now, I am so familiar with this litany of questions that sometimes I answer a question before it is even asked, while the questioner is still stammering out the beginning of his sentence.
Fifteen minutes later, the conversation seemed on the verge of ending when the old man turned back towards me and asked, in all seriousness, “can you speak Chinese?”
“What have we been speaking this entire time?” I wanted to say. “Have you even been listening”
I said, “I can speak a little bit.”
Satisfied, the old man waved goodbye and got up to get off the bus. I was left thinking about who I am perceived to be, and how these perceptions might affect who I actually am.
As a foreigner in China, I am under constant scrutiny. With people’s impressions of 外国 (foreign lands) and, specifically, America almost entirely coming from TV, I am constantly judged to be a certain very specific type of person. The kind of American who appears on Chinese TV shows about the United States is, as such, the prototype of all Americans. The Americans on these shows are, effectively, the same as everyone else who lives within the borders of the United States.
This idea is heightened by China being a comparatively group-oriented, homogenous society, not to mention the government’s campaigns to foster unity of thought and purpose. While these observations are grossly oversimplified, they also are – in comparison to the United States – largely true. When I try to explain America’s diversity to locals, they quickly become confused or disinterested. And I can’t blame them: from the perspective of Qinghai province, where the simple presence of a few non-Han minorities (most notably Tibetans) raises ethnic tensions to the boiling point, it must seem ludicrous that a country such as America, where seemingly everyone has a different cultural and ethnic background, can even exist, let alone thrive.
Living in Qinghai, a remote province in China’s northwest which is one of China’s poorest and most backwards, only heightens the scrutiny and simplifies the judgments into the realm of parody. While foreigners are an increasingly common sight in the major cities and tourist sites of eastern China, they are still quite few on the ground in Qinghai, and those that do exist often receive the kind of treatment usually accorded other endangered species or exotic animals: staring, laughing, pointing, and intensely curious questioning. But with many locals’ preformed judgments about Americans, it will not take them many questions to figure out who you truly are – and whether you are a ‘real’ American or not.
Witness this recent conversation at a bar in Xining. I, with my friends Steve and Ligaya (both also Americans), were suddenly cornered by a group of four drunk, loud, and extremely talkative men who, after buying us beer, immediately began barraging us with questions.
“Where are you from?” they asked Steve and Ligaya.
“America,” they said.
“You look like an American”, they said, pointing to Steve. “But she”, now pointing to Ligaya, expressions of doubt painting their alcohol-red faces, “is definitely Chinese.”
Ligaya is half-Filipino, and gets mistaken for a local almost everywhere she goes. “But I’m American,” she said. “My parents were both born in the United States.”
“You look Chinese though. How can you be an American if you don’t look like one?”
Ligaya started to give them a short talk on diversity, explaining how people have come to America from all over the world and, by today, the country has people of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. But it was lost on the men, who, instead of listening, decided to make a short toast (“to your coming to China!”) and then asked me the same question.
“I’m from America,” I said.
“There’s no way you’re American,” said the man sitting next to me, looking distrustfully at my face. “You don’t have an American face.”
“Then where do I look like I’m from?” I asked.
“The Middle East,” he said. “You look like you’re from Saudi Arabia.”
While I am Jewish – so, if you go back hundreds of years, my interrogator might have been on to something – I have the pale skin and facial features common to the Jewry of Eastern Europe. I made up my mind to set him straight.
“I’m not from Saudi Arabia,” I said, “and my ancestors came to America from Europe. I’m definitely not from the Middle East; I’m an American.”
“You’re definitely from Western Asia,” said another man. “I’m not sure which country. Maybe Libya.”
“You look like an Arab,” said a man scrutinizing my face from across the table. “I think you’re from somewhere in Arabia. There’s no way you can be an American.”
For the past few minutes, the man who first questioned me had been intensely staring at my face as if looking for something. His eyes suddenly lit up; now he had it.
“Your appearance reminded me of someone,” he said, “but I couldn’t figure out who it was. Now I know: you look like Osama bin Laden!”
This was a first. My jaw dropped nearly to the floor and I stared at the man, eyes surely bulging outwards, for a few seconds before I regained control of myself enough to respond. “It must be because of my big foreign nose,” I said, making everyone laugh and defusing the situation.
But for the rest of the night, the men continued to insist that Steve was the only American among us, that I was an Arab who looked like Osama bin Laden and that Ligaya was Chinese. Though we tried again to talk about America’s diversity and about our own personal backgrounds as evidence of our true Americanness, these attempts always met with a lack of either comprehension or care. As far as they were concerned, Ligaya and I didn’t meet their expectations of what an American should look like – and, as a result, we simply couldn’t be Americans. At one point I asked them what a “real” American looks like, but the question was lost amid drunken laughter.
To live in China, you must become accustomed to strangers (and friends) making extraordinarily blunt statements about your personal appearance and incredibly broad judgments about who you must be as a result of your appearance and nationality. Even my boss, who has traveled to Australia and the U.K., told me when I warned him about my terrible basketball skills (he had been trying to recruit me for a faculty basketball tournament) that he thought I wasn’t telling the truth. I must be good at basketball, he said, because “all Americans play basketball really well.”
All foreigners living or traveling in China are constantly judged. And while most locals compartmentalize and typologize the foreigners they do encounter according to their TV-driven predetermined ideas, it is certainly not because the real people match the TV people. Maybe it is because their skin is a color other than white, maybe it is because they can speak Chinese fluently, maybe it is because they can’t play basketball or have never met a movie star or simply look like someone else. Whatever it is, nearly all foreigners fail to meet standards, fall short of expectations. And therefore I, as a basketballawkward nonChristian nonbusinessmanJew longdistancerunning pianoplaying Bin Laden lookalike, must be a real disappointment.