"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

Anonymously Known
September 28, 2010, 4:02 am
Filed under: daily life in china, the expat life | Tags:

“One of the pleasures of travel is being anonymous,” writes travel writer Paul Theroux.*  But travel in China, for me, demands a different kind of anonymity, a visible anonymity.  In New York, anyone can be anonymous; no one looks at one another, no one really cares who you are or where you’re going.  Here, everyone looks, everyone cares.  Or nearly everyone.

An anonymous person in China will be showered with attention: I get stared at, I get special treatment from street vendors, restaurant owners and locals, and I can expect that someone will try to engage me in conversation.  It is this kind of anonymity that makes China seem like a “dangerous” place, as though anything can happen at any time; simply walking down the street is an invitation to some kind of interaction with a fellow stranger.

By “dangerous,” I really mean unpredictable, which is very intimidating when you’re new to town.  There have been several times when the unpredictable has knocked on my door and given me a scare.  Once, the unpredictable decided not to knock but simply let himself in; I’m pretty sure someone had broken into my apartment a few times, not to steal anything, just to look around and see how the foreigner lives.  (I changed the locks, and haven’t had a problem since.) Other incidents have been minor: a man on the bus pestered me for my phone number (I told him I didn’t have one) and then followed me when I got off at my stop; or, while eating lunch at the market, a crowd surrounded me and watched a man stuff a bunch of bank papers in my face–he wanted me to transfer money to an overseas account.

But China is really not a very dangerous place, especially not for a foreigner.  If anything, most people have been nothing but warm and hospitable to me, to the point where I have to struggle to contain the ever-suspicious New Yorker inside of me.  Nothing is free–right?  Sometimes, it isn’t; Chinese culture operates on a system of guanxi, or connections–if you help a person, then you’re free to ask them for a favor later on.  Admittedly, knowing this puts me at ease; I don’t have to worry about people’s real intentions might be.

Often, however, my visible anonymity makes another Chinese quality visible: simple, unconditional kindness.  Some people–strangers–don’t expect anything in return.  During my first week here, I kept getting lost and couldn’t understand people’s directions when I asked for help.  So they would take the time to walk me to wherever I needed to be.  On the buses, groups of strangers would keep an eye on me to make sure I got off at the correct stop.  When a seat on the bus is free, someone will always insist that I sit, and I in turn fight to let them have the seat (luckily, they still understand me when I accidentally say “please come in” instead of “please sit”).

I don’t expect this kind of hospitality to continue much longer; it’s already waning, since I’ve more or less adjusted to daily life here and can manage on my own.  But knowing that people have my back makes trying new things a lot easier.  Just a few nights ago, I wandered into a real Chinese restaurant by myself.  I had avoided going into restaurants before because there’s so much on the menu that I can’t read.  So it was with some anxiety that I stepped into this crowded, noisy restaurant.

The laoban (restaurant owner) was so excited that a foreigner walked through the door that she insisted that I stay, even though there were no seats.  I ended up sitting with a man and his mother.  For a few minutes, I studied the menu as though I could actually read it.

“Excuse me,” I said.  “Can you recommend something good to eat? I can’t read the menu.”

“Don’t worry,” said the woman.  “It’s our treat.”

Immediately, I assumed that this tired and delicate-looking mother and son duo was out to rob, kidnap or kill me.  Because really, would this ever happen in New York?

I liked the mother a lot.  She regarded me as something akin to an orphan and took it upon herself to be a mother to me for the evening.  She warned me never to share important information with anyone, never give anyone my phone number, never get into a car with anyone: “There are good people in Dalian, but there are also very bad people.”

Like a good mother, she seemed to worry about me.  She thought the neighborhood where I live is unsafe and advised me to move downtown.  Like many people, she asked my age, and when I told her I was twenty-two she nearly went into hysterics that reminded me very much of my Nana: “Twenty-two! You’re just a child! How could your parents let you come here by yourself?”

After dinner, she took me outside and, clinging to my hand and my arm, showed me which taxis are safe to take and which are not.  We exchanged email addresses and said goodbye, and I offered to treat them next time.

I checked my wallet and bag. Everything was there.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t been killed, and I promise you right now that it is really I, not any kidnappers, who is writing this.

*From Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China


1 Comment so far
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Love the comment “I was pretty sure I hadn’t been killed” hahahahahhahahah
Glad u can make the distinction:)


Comment by PP

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