CHAPTER SEVEN of “Commie wage slave,” in which I learn how very foreign I am to one-fifth of humanity
Beijing, as a nation’s capital, is home to its most prestigious universities and bustling with business people and tourists from around the world. So it surprised me how often I was regarded as an alien species.
I walked for miles in a nearby park almost daily without seeing another Westerner. When riding a bus or subway, or strolling through the campus of a nearby university, or shopping in a food market, places that swarmed with overcrowded Oriental humanity, it was very rare to see an Occidental face unless I was in the embassy zone or near a tourist attraction.
At times, this was a little unnerving because people stared at me all the time. Even in neighborhoods accustomed to seeing foreigners, Chinese stared at me openly and constantly. I figured they rarely, if ever, saw any female foreign devils as tall as me.
After a while, I could gauge the likely response if I smiled and nodded at someone who stared. People who were middle aged or older simply stared back, their faces blank. They grew up during a time of closed borders, Cold War and national paranoia about hostile Western powers.
Those in their thirties or so generally smiled back. They’re more aware of the world outside China, less fearful of it and often eager to see it.
The high school kids next door to China Daily appeared too shy to catch my eye. Very young children would turn their faces away and hide or even cry as if they’d seen something scary. Chinese parents must tell some awful stories about barbarians.
Their less pejorative terms for Westerners are “round eyes” and “big noses.”
We must indeed have looked immense. Chinese are very small, slender people. Even when wearing their heavy winter coats, the young security guards at China Daily looked like I could have picked any one of them up and snapped him in half with a good bear hug.
Buying women’s clothes off the rack was not possible for me and many other Westerners, unless we went to a store that catered to Russians. Even when we had items custom-made by tailors who supposedly had much experience with Western tourists, we couldn’t get clothes that fit. My friend Annette, who is slender enough to almost fit into Chinese clothes, went with me to a shop at the Silk Street Market, a well-known tourist destination. She wanted a suit and I was after a coat. We picked out patterns and material, were measured, paid for the items and were told when to come back for them.
Apparently, the tailor couldn’t believe what his measuring tape told him. Our new, custom-made clothes were too tight. Since the material for my coat had been cut too small, I was stuck with an ill-fitting cashmere coat that I ended up selling.
The contrast between American and Chinese women was startling in other ways, too. When something amuses a well-mannered Chinese female, she’ll softly titter while holding one hand over her mouth. The sight of American women laughing out loud, and without covering their mouths, appalled them. We seemed to them like braying donkeys.
We also had no inkling about how to behave with superiors. If I needed to ask my supervisor a question, I addressed her by her first name, instead of using her title and last name. When clinking glasses during a toast at office dinners, I failed to make sure my glass was lower than that held by someone higher up the food chain. My ignorance about these basic points of Chinese social etiquette simply seemed like bad manners.
Western women were just too large, too loud and too direct by Chinese standards of femininity.
Chinese men kept their distance from us, but Western men eagerly dated Chinese women. Western women watched these romances with distaste, knowing that when the man moved on, his Chinese ex would face disgrace and disapproval. To Chinese parents, it’s pointless and even harmful for a girl to date anyone who isn’t a possible husband. Chinese girls who aren’t married by age 27 are referred to as “leftovers.”
My status as a never-married woman with no children was regarded as freakish. No Chinese was so impolite as to say so, but you could almost hear them thinking, “A fate worse than death.” What I regarded as freedom and welcome solitude, they considered a pitiable state and an irresponsible lack of familial duty to my parents, who surely expected grandchildren.
That my parents never pressured any of their children to marry and reproduce would be unimaginable to Chinese parents, another shocking example of barbarian (meaning non-Chinese) behavior.
Coming next: China’s Great Firewall