Note: Sanya is *the* resort town on Hainan, with beautiful beaches, and therefore highly touristy. In this video, all that is literally in the background
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Note: 天涯海角 (TianYaHaiJiao), usually translated simply as “the end of the world” is a famous location in China, popular with Chinese tourists.
A new series of videos in podcast, delivering impressions from China right to your computer or video-capable iPod – the fun, the cool, the everyday… the things that make China so interesting and so great. As the name implies, just 20 seconds each (well, 30 in total).
I happened to virtually run into Ellis of plateofwander.com when I had just found my way of getting to China, and she seemed to not find a way after all. Since then, as her plans worked out too, we have been comparing our impressions of (being in) China.
Recently, she posted about the way Chinese approach foreigners, and it got me to remember that I had wanted to write a bit about this issue, but hadn’t yet done so.
What issue, really?
Well, that of feeling at home in a foreign country is a little bit of it, the main part is simply that of being easily recognizable as a foreigner, and the way people react to foreigners.
In China, this is a particularly interesting issue. Both because one does stick out, and because people react in very specific ways: Comments of 老外 (“foreigner”) and in a case like mine also 外教(“foreign teacher”), sometimes accompanied by pointing and stares, are very common.
It can be quite funny with schoolchildren trying out their English, it can be quite annoying when people check out your supermarket cart wondering what the foreigner is buying.
(I must admit to having done the same thing, wondering what other foreigners or Chinese are buying…
And actually, I must admit to having become so accustomed to having Chinese faces around, I sometimes almost want to point and exclaim that this face really looks different when I suddenly see my own face reflected somewhere.
While I’m at it: I have to say that I felt more foreign and vulnerable when I was walking around Harlem.)
What can get under your skin a bit more (just check out Ellis’ post…), is the Chinese propensity for commenting on someone’s looks. Such comments, especially to a person’s face, are pretty rare in America and also in Central Europe – in Northern Europe, I hadn’t really noticed; in Southern Europe, it’s just a part of normal speech.
Well, China is a bit like Southern Europe when it comes to that, except strangely gender-equal in this respect: guys also get comments of ?? (handsome). Yesterday, just after reading Ellis’ post, I heard the first “lovely” which was ever directed at me…
Well, it can get somewhat annoying. I have become rather too good at recognizing such comments even at a distance. At the same time, I must say that I just shake them off… seems easier for a guy, and a foreign teacher mainly meeting students: I certainly don’t get the innuendo, rarely even get asked for my number.
Actually, in thinking and talking about it, I found that I can take this very easily:
I just consider it a part of customary Chinese ways of chatting (I’m not quite sure it is, but I have heard quite enough comments by Chinese, about the looks of another Chinese, to think so).
What I have more trouble getting a grip on is actually the American habit of greeting somebody by “asking” “How are you?” It is almost always used instead of “Hi,” without any interest whatsoever in the other person’s state of health. So, I know it’s also just customary, but not even giving somebody the time to say “Fine, thank you” just seems very wrong to me – and I would not want to give that answer when the truth is probably a bit more complicated.
Being the foreigner can also open up a very different perspective on immigrants to one’s own country: The often-criticized refusal to integrate into the host culture is suddenly something a person has to consider for him-/herself.
In the end, I personally mainly find that my anthropology teachers were right: They suggested that the best students of cultural anthropology are those who don’t quite feel at home in the country they are supposed to be a part of, being too aware of the artifice that goes into the supposed naturalness of any culture’s basic tenets.
(Basically, it’s like the state of “reverse culture shock” – the culture shock one can get when returning from somewhere else and noticing, for the first time maybe, that one’s own culture can seem pretty strange. But as a state of mind.)
I’d rather be the foreigner, suffer some downsides, get conscious of my own cultural baggage and decide which parts of my heritage to uphold and which to discard, and learn to fit in somewhere else to the extent to which I find it feasible and want to do it.
Another culture. One of the reasons why “the other” is dangerous: It can serve as a mirror, reflecting your own image in ways leading you to recognize more of yourself.
Recently, my time has been very interesting:
On the one hand, last weekend, I realized one more reason why, in anthropological fieldwork, your private life is sometimes referred to as “the shadow side.”
The obvious (?) reason is that it is supposed to remain hidden. You go out in the field to live there, get to know the group/culture you live with, find out what you ventured out for, but not get too involved. (Of course, I’m also here to teach, to live, not strictly for fieldwork, so who cares?)
And, naturally, we are human. Many of the postmodern influences in anthropology – seeing anthropological writing as not much more than fiction, telling more about the author than about the purported research question – are of rather questionable value. They tended to let anthropological writing devolve into novelistic fables, more navel-gazing and literary artifact than even good travel writing is. Yet, there is value in having had this critique remind us that we are human. We cannot prevent being alive as a human being; not scientific instruments which just measure objectively, but persons with character and emotions, thought and feeling.
So, being human, I felt rather “in the shadow” last weekend. Emotional turmoil. I knew some of the reasons – mainly, a nagging feeling of loneliness – but still couldn’t quite understand what it was.
On the other hand, after the weekend, things started to look up.
Already on the weekend, I went to play table tennis. Probably for the first time in twenty years, if I ever really played before. Went and played basketball with some of them. Got out of the apartment… which, stupid as that sounds, is just too big right now. Took the chances I got for chatting with my students, which leads to them practicing German, me practicing Chinese, and everybody noticing that the other is actually open to socializing. Thought not about what will be, but what I was doing in the moment… and it’s not as if there weren’t enough to do… exams are coming up, winter break is a chance for either a nervous break-down, or chances to travel, write, do photography, and look forward to all of that.
In the spirit of “the other as mirror,” I noticed something:
Culture is, as we anthropologists (should) understand, oftentimes also hidden in the shadows, the crags and crevices of our consciousness.
German speakers, and especially around Vienna, have made an art form out of the complaint. People do not only go to pubs to drink, but also to complain. About the politicians, the weather, the economy, stupid people (which tends to be, everyone but the in-group), and so on, and so forth. It’s a form of socializing.
Bring that into a different context – like me feeling gloomy, living in China – and you get an interesting situation: I wake up with a smile because I’m here, feel that it’s the right place to be, am learning something new every day… but must have given some people a very strange impression when I first complained about the trouble I’ve been in, and then told them how much I like it here…
There are many ways we are not really at home in… this world:
Living “location independent,” “sampling the best experiences “, with little connection.
Stuck in a place, stuck in a job, feeling at home just because everything’s always the same.
It doesn’t have to be this superficial way.
Join me in exploring ways we can #GetAtHome and find solutions to this problem we don’t even know we have…