The first moment was on the first plane to Shanghai.
My seat mate Madge (not her real name) accidentally bumped into me, turned and muttered something in Chinese at me, which I took to mean “Excuse me”.
On my connecting flight to Shenzhen, the flight attendant asked me what I wanted to drink. It took me several tries before the word “water” made sense to her because she was expecting me to respond in Chinese.
Walking out to the baggage claim, the white businessman I was walking next to was assailed by offers for taxis while I escaped undisturbed.
These were my first hints that I was going to have no trouble at all posing as a local in China.
In a new place, I usually try my best to blend in. On my first weekend in New York, I put on my meanest bitchface, speedwalked with the best of them, and was thoroughly gratified when another tourist asked me for directions.
Walking alone in China, nobody gives me a second glance which is fine by me. I’m just another Chinese girl in China, on her way to wherever. I’m not a tourist, not a weiguoren.
Walking with the non-Asians in my induction group is an entirely different experience. People openly stare and take pictures of us on the subway, sometimes approach and ask for a selfie. It’s apparently fashionable for Chinese locals to take pictures with foreigners and then pretend on Weibo that the pale Brit or black New Yorker are their friends. We’re heavily targeted by street merchants. It can feel invasive, and some of my group admit they feel like zoo animals. Still, there isn’t any malice, just genuine curiosity.
When I eat at restaurants with my group, the staff always addresses me, figuring I’m the Chinese one. It usually takes a few seconds of my blank stare and my fluent-in-Mandarin roommate leaping into action before they figure out I’m as much a foreigner as anyone.
The upside of being easily recognized as foreigners is that people have low expectations for their communication abilities, and are very sweet in their willingness to help. They patiently use gestures, pictures, and any scrap of English to help the weiguorens figure out what they want to eat or where they need to go.
Not so much with me. When I’m alone, without the buffer of a white friend, Chinese locals are perplexed by this Chinese looking girl who apparently can’t read, understand, or speak the language.When I stare in blank confusion without responding, they often repeat themselves more slowly. Then they get frustrated. I can’t blame them, I look the part but come across as either stupid, grossly incompetent, or worst, a supremely aloof dickhead.
I’ve learned both “Wo shi Meiguo ren” and “Wo bu shi Zhonguo ren” (I’m American, I’m not Chinese) but in the moment all my carefully honed Chinese abandons me. I stutter in panic, usually end up spewing some mixture of Korean, Spanish, and English with the occasional ASL sign thrown in.
Partly, this fuels me to work harder at my Chinese and learn faster. Partly, it leads to despair and timidity. None of my studying prepares me to parse the rapid fire sentence the Carrefour clerk hits me with (Note to self: she’s probably just saying how are you. Stop panicking, learn to just smile and nod.) How on earth am I going to learn this vastly difficult language that people spend years studying? Every trip to the grocery store requires me to psych myself up for a barrage of Chinese.
Still, every successful interaction -utilizing a mixture of English and my slowly expanding Chinese vocabulary- is a victory. I might not become fluent in a year, but I will keep practicing, and learning to communicate.