“Special”

This scene at the Temple of the Empress of Heaven 天后 (aka 妈祖) this weekend reminded me that, in China, we’re “special”, and that being special in China is a mixed bag:


(Click to view larger image.).

The picture doesn’t do the scene justice; there were a lot more people around before I managed to get the camera up and clicking. Similar but better pictures from Tianjin are here:

Foreigners are “special” in China, and they tend to both love and hate it. One the one hand, what’s not to love about being special? We get preferential treatment. We’re always the guests. Our mistakes are more easily excused. Supply-and-demand means we have multiple times more leverage than our Chinese coworkers and our salaries and other aspects of compensation reflect it. Guys who rank 2 out of 10 in their home country can find girlfriends with minimal effort. You walk down the street and literally turn heads because you’re special.

On the other hand, there’s the constant “othering” — the staring, the photos, the zoo animal feeling, the “hellooo!”s and “laowai!”s, the invasion of personal space and boundaries, the realization that you aren’t respected but rather just interesting or useful, the daily distancing and reminders that “you’re not one of us and don’t really belong here.”

Foreigners routinely gripe about the negatives while enjoying the positives. It’s a mixed bag that most of us have never faced before coming here, and it’s already on you and affecting you before you’re even aware. Add to that the culture stress (or shock) cycles that everyone experiences, and it can be an emotionally volatile mix. And having foreign children amplifies everything by 10.

Other than being more alert than I used to be (because we have kids now and not all attention is friendly or benign), I mostly just smile and wave and be friendly, even if people are crossing my culture’s personal space boundaries. We tell our oldest daughter she doesn’t have to let people take her picture if she doesn’t want them to, or talk to anyone she doesn’t want to, and we run interference for her if that’s what she wants, while trying to give her a gracious, friendly example. The vast majority of the time, in my experience, foreigners make a much bigger deal of it than it really is.

But then again, I don’t have bright blond long hair. Our friend Shannon (who does have long blond hair) moved back to the U.S. after 3.5 years and wrote “Hero to Zero” about her cultural re-entry stress experience in which she discovered that, in America, she isn’t special anymore.

Unwanted attention can be difficult to handle, positive or not. But as difficult as it can be at the time, all things considered, it’s a small price to pay for existing as the economically privileged minority on this globe. Plus, a lot of the associated stress foreigners bring on themselves. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to bat people’s fingers out of my kids’ mouths on the Beijing subway. ;)

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