Little Guppy, Big Ocean: An American Woman Abroad in China

When I graduated college, I knew that I had already spent to much of my life dependent on others, and I needed to find some independence. I had always wanted to visit Japan, but when the opportunity to teach in China arrived, I decided to take a hint from the universe and go. It was a frustrating process just to get out there, from complicated and late paperwork, to a thirteen hour flight, but honestly, I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world, because for eight months, I got to see the world through eyes that did not come from the sheltered world I grew up in. I changed, and for many reasons, I am a better person for it.

On my first day in China I felt like a little guppy in a large ocean. Every day, small children stared at my blonde hair in wonder as I walk past them on the street. Anyone who knows how to say “Hello” in English wanted to stop and give it a try. I even had adults stop and shout “Foreigner,” in shocked surprise. It is like fame without the money, and there are times you are targeted for it, particularly when it comes to taxi drivers. One driver tried to charge my father and me 600 kuai for what should have been a 150 kuai trip to a hotel in Beijing. That feeling of being new and different can make you feel isolated.

My first impression: Wow, there are a lot of people here. 

I know you are thinking – well no duh: it’s China! – but hear me out. You look at cities like Chicago and New York and see sprawling skylines of office buildings and executive tours. In China those towers are apartment complexes, tons of people stacked on top of each other like sardine cans. When I asked my students what they would buy if they had a million dollars or three wishes, most of them would ask for a house because in China, a house is a luxury so few can afford.

This also means that tourist spots like the Great Wall are scary places during the holiday season because so many people visit. I discovered that sidewalks are actually parking structures disguised as walkways, bathrooms are optional if you have a really young child (because backless baby pants – super convenient for you and utterly unhygienic), children can be used as a way to push past lines in public places, and meat at the supermarket doesn’t come from the factory in those prepackaged cases you see in the states. On the plus side, I also learned American restaurants have it wrong: it should not take 30-60 minutes to get dinner.

It took me a long time to get comfortable in China. Like a fish in a new river, I had to adjust to my new environment. After I had been there a while, I was able to walk up to the street vendors who made me my chickChina aquariumen or squid on a stick, and they taught me Chinese while I waited. I went to the Chinese burger stand, and the men who knew I struggled usually gestured at me through the crowd on busy days and helped me out. I also found all the hidden places to go if I needed a quick reminder of home or to find a stranger who spoke English.

My favorite experiences were when my students found me while I was out and about, and made me feel like a marked point on a scavenger hunt because the cameras came out and I was suddenly posing with six kids in the middle of a shopping mall.

Homesickness was a fact of life when I first got there.

For me, I really had to think about my life there to remember why I want to stay. Things such as how much my students loved me, and the awe I stood in when I wandered through a historic park with traditional architecture and glance across the street to see the sprawling towers of apartment structures and supermalls. I gawked at the rich cultural history of a people that has worked hard to establish themselves as a superpower that grew so strong and vast so quickly. I also considered the great new friends I never would have met otherwise. Very quickly, I remembered that I was only going to have one shot at this, and I better make it count.

I really want to focus on the positives of this experience, but as this is an article about women and finding your own strengths, I was asked to talk a little about what being a woman was like there. The simple truth was, much like here, the way you were treated was a crapshoot between boys who still have the ability to learn better, and men with a brooding sense of entitlement over the fact that they were born to the favored gender.

Women do not necessarily trapped by circumstance, but own themselves to the stereotypical design of their gender, much as we would have bent to that stereotype once upon a time. All the women I met were wonderful people, but I had more than one occasion where I felt the brunt of being a second-class gender. For example, at New Year’s parties, men provided liquor and we were rude to turn it down, even if it was too much. Men also spoke down to you for any decisions as if you were an infant. Those were a few aspects of this trip that were not always glamorous.

If I learned anything from the Chinese people it is that they will go above and beyond to help you if you just ask.

friend nanjing

Above are two sets of friends I met on this wonderful journey. The first was a teacher at my school. She spent my first month walking me around town, teaching me necessary Chinese and trying to make me less homesick. The second are two guys I met by sitting down at a table in a youth hostel who ended up touring with me and a friend around Nanjing while on holiday from university. They translated tours, directed us to buses, and even showed us the hidden restaurant hotspots.

I find that given the chance, Chinese people wanted to learn about us as much as I wanted to learn about them. During a visit to a hair salon I had wandered past hundreds of times, I met a young girl who reminded me to always be humbled by the help I received. Right after I arrived, I watched nearly ten people pop out of the woodwork to come stare at me like an ant under a microscope as I tried to explain what I wanted. One of the girls spent most of my time there following me around, even though her shift ended shortly after I arrived and just spoke with me. She asked about what I wanted, but she also asked about my life, whether or not I was enjoying China, and what kinds of things I liked to do.buddhist temple

Being a foreigner in any country is hard, but there are days I wandered down a city street in China and almost forgot that I was in a foreign country until I saw an unleashed dog hop onto his owner’s motor scooter, or a clothesline with dried meat hanging for sale.

China is a wonderful country: the kindness, understanding, and caring that these people showed touches my heart. I may have felt like a fish without a school some days, but I got to see the world in different colors and with new eyes, and it is a beautiful world.

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