Last weekend I went to Shanghai for the first time (it’s about an hour away on the train) and I felt like one of those expats. Well, more accurately, I finally saw myself as one of those expats, which I’ve really been the whole time I’ve lived in Hangzhou.
Living in China is really, really different from being an American* living in Europe. White Americans blend in Europe. In Poland, no one looked at me twice until I opened my mouth and very loud, nasal-y English spilled out instead of Polish. Spain is the same for the most part. (Spanish people often told me I look German, but that didn’t change anyone’s interaction with me, and I certainly was not exotic with my light hair and even lighter skin. There are lots of fair people in Spain.) In China, foreigners stand out. Maybe not in cities like Beijing and Shanghai (which is what we’re getting to), but in Hangzhou we do. We sort of do a nod, when we see another foreigner, like, Hey, I see you. We’re in this together.
But more than simply standing out, Chinese culture is so much more different from American culture than European culture is. One example: food. My cultural expectations around food are all European: the types of food we eat, the way we prepare it, the style of restaurants. Europe and the US are pretty much the same. Even though I’ve had many types of Chinese food in California, much of it prepared and eaten by Chinese people, it is not the same as going to China and trying to decide how what you want to eat. I’ve shopped at Asian markets when I wanted a particular product, but if I’m just cooking a quotidian meal, olive oil or fresh dairy would probably be a key ingredient. You can both of these in China but it’s expensive, and the quality is questionable.
So as I was saying. Last weekend in Shanghai. It became painfully obvious how much I am That Foreigner. You know, the one who moves abroad only to recreate their home experience in their new country. The whole weekend, I hung out with other Americans, Canadians and Brits. (We sort of planned the whole trip together, so it’s to be expected, but still.) We went to western bars the whole time. The only Chinese people we talked to were taxi drivers, with me using the little Chinese I know to ask how much the taxi ride costs. (So far I can tell people that I’m American, ask how much something costs, and order something that comes in a glass.) I definitely didn’t eat any Chinese food.
We didn’t go with the expectations of doing a lot of sightseeing, since we live so close and we plan to come back often, but the amount of times I looked around to see non-Chinese faces still astounded me. At one point, we went into Burger King (the birthday boy wanted a Whopper, which they didn’t have, they only had chicken sandwiches, I know, weird, right?), and I ended up talking to this Chilean family for 15 minutes. On Saturday night we were in a complex of Western restaurants and bars, and we met an Asian couple, only they turned out to be from Hong Kong, not mainland China.
If you’re willing to spend the money, it’s easy to forget you’re in China and instead drink lattes in hipster cafes and eat Mexican food and make grilled cheese like you would back home. But I want to be in China, not back home.