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Free as a … Foreigner

In my earlier column on China, I talked about a certain kind of freedom that I experienced there; a physical ease that seems to imbue Chinese culture.

There is another way in which I felt amazingly free during my month-long stay there. This had to do with safety, and with being on my own for part of the journey.

Feeling safe and feeling free are closely related. (1) When you do not feel that you need to be on your guard, you relax. Instead of seeing danger everywhere, you see interesting people and beckoning paths. You can start exploring.

Sometimes when you climb every mountain, you run a risk of getting too high... (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo. Photo by the author.)

Sometimes when you climb ev’ry mountain, you run a risk of getting too high… (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo.)

I felt safe in China, and I felt free. Thinking over why this was so, I was probably subject to a lucky combination of factors.

1)

People at home in Europe had warned me of China’s dangers. No doubt, real dangers exist in China. Yet my journey made me realise there is also a lot of misunderstanding between Europeans and Chinese, including a lot of prejudice.

How well can most Europeans (and North Americans, etc.) estimate the dangers of going to China as a foreigner? What is the information that really gets passed on through popular media? That must surely be the news, mostly negative, on things like censorship, working conditions in big factories, the long-term effects of air pollution, and heavily centralised politics. These things are serious stuff, I agree. But they are not at all unique to China. Also – and this is the point here – they are not the first things you encounter when taking a stroll in a Chinese city.

But of course, I had been influenced by the same media, and, having never travelled far out of Europe, I came prepared to be watchful.

2)

Once I stepped foot on Chinese soil, however, I did in fact feel quite safe, and continued to do so for most of my journey.

I was wary of infectious diseases, but for the rest? As said earlier, I did not see any traffic incidents or other serious accidents. I do not remember being followed or leered at by suspicious men (which is a rather sexist fear to start with!). The only time I came close to that was at the thoroughly ‘respectable’ international conference I attended in China. None of the beggars I met were intimidatingly insistent, and hardly any of the salespeople. (2) I did not witness any physical fights or see any drawn guns. (I saw a drawn sword in a park, in the hands of someone practising their martial art.) Even dogs were well-behaved.

But most of all, it was precisely because I had come so well-warned, that things truly looked ridiculously safe on closer inspection.

3)

I was clearly a foreigner in China. No doubt a valuable foreigner. That is to say, I am acutely aware of the disproportionate benefits my European passport and looks gave me.

I could travel into China and out again.

I was recognisably a tourist, with spare time and a little bit of money to spend.

And finally, officials probably made it their task to prevent giving foreign newspapers the chance to report more bad news, along the lines of ‘tourist found dead at bottom of prestigious dam’ or ‘innocent young woman gone missing in Beijing alleys’. So people were perhaps just a little bit more careful around me than they are around their fellow citizens.

Many also treated me quite matter-of-factly, especially when at work, which most Chinese people are most of the time. The elite, however, with a reputation to care about, tended to be fantastically polite or else fantastically protective.

One tiring afternoon, our travel group had been shuttling to and fro through Shanghai to finally catch a sleeper train to Beijing. Some of us had even been stopped at the station security checkpoint and had to unload their bags. Then, one authoritative figure started a heated conversation with our tour guide. We were ordered to a separate section of the waiting area. We had started to feel apprehensive already, when our guide finally explained to us that we were given a (rather unceremonious) special treatment that would allow us first entrance to the platform. It would save us a lot of queueing up. (It saved the locals a lot of time, too, no doubt, because we were clumsy with our tickets, and as long as we stuck together we did not have to process our individual tickets).

Later on in the month, I was exploring the buildings and grounds of my conference hotel, but kept running into cheongsamed ladies (partly selected for their height, I suspect) who with their stunning, never-ceasing smiles tried to cajole me back into the prettier central regions of the hotel. When, on my second day there, I had finally grown properly tired of its third, fourth and fifth stars, I sneaked out for a lunch in the park. As I was eating my steamed buns on a bench, however, one of the conference’s student volunteers spotted me. (3) Surprised, he asked me what I was doing there. And on my own, too! Had I lost my way? He offered to walk me back, but I protested that I had specifically wanted to spend some time outside the hotel enclave. He still did not quite believe someone would choose to be on their own, so he sat down next to me and we chatted for a while. Although both these events around my conference hotel created the impression with me that I was being watched (somewhat diminishing my sense of freedom during this last week), it is only fair to stick to the kinder conclusion that I was simply being cared for.

In between the people too busy to care, and the people busy caring, there was the category of shopkeepers and others with whom I had some kind of brief business to arrange. They were usually quite happy to spend a little extra time on the dumb foreigner.

All this enhanced care for privileged foreigners is completely unfair to China’s own citizens of course, but again: that is not the point here. The point is that, apparently, you can fly to the other side of the world where you do not even speak the language, and feel free and at ease.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Imagine, being a young woman on your own, with all the connotations that come with that; in a city which you have been raised to consider dangerous, where you stand out as a foreigner, and where everyone stares at you.

Imagine packing everything you have in a bag, leaving your hostel room, and handing in the key to reception. You can now no longer rely on them, either.

Imagine knowing no one, and having nowhere to go, except one of the many stations in that sprawling city – one of the biggest in the world – where a train will bring you to one of the many, many other cities in that vast country, a city completely unknown to you, where you are to again find your way through millions of strangers, to the next place where you are supposed to sleep.

All through the journey, you stand out as a stranger, as someone who may not know her way around and who can hardly ask for help.

If that is the case, and yet all the circumstances conspire in such a way that you are not afraid, then, surely, you must feel exhilarated beyond measure?

(1) That was one of the conclusions of the project I did at the University of Oxford some years ago. Then, I was looking at people of the past. Now, I am experiencing it myself.

(2) I am probably thinking of these examples because, again, these were typically nineteenth-century travel fears. (See my research project at the University of Twente!)

(3) Half the conference was run by unpaid students. One of their vital tasks was to interpret between the foreign delegates and the Chinese (hotel) staff. They cannot be praised enough.

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Carefree in China

I have just returned from a month in China.

Before I went, I was not sure how much I would like it. I had been reading things like Een barbaar in China and Carolijn Visser’s travel stories, both written in the 1980s. I held on to the comfort that, if the worst came to the worst, the excellent food would pull me through.

I have a completely different image of China now. In fact, it has been the people that I have come to love most of all.

My overnight stays in China. Adapted from Joowwww’s map on Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, China is vast and varied, but in the places I visited, I encountered one cultural feature again and again, one that completely differs from the European North-Sea culture I am used to. This was the people’s openness, their physical freedom, their carelessness almost, but an accommodating, elegant sort of carelessness.

Of course, most of the places I visited were very crowded. You may argue that this makes it simply impossible for people to maintain some distance to each other. Still, when you look around you on the London underground, you notice that people can succeed at this, if they want. In eastern China, however, people did not seem to mind touching each other. In fact, I have often seen strangers touch each other on the back to ask them for room to pass, instead of only saying ‘excuse me’.

And then there is the infamous pushing and bumping into each other on the street, which annoys a lot of visitors (yes, that includes myself). I received the impression that, instead of estimating the way of least resistance through a crowd, most people just walked; and instead of giving way to pedestrians with a determined look on their face, as in Europe, they stuck to their own swerving path… and let the bumping happen. Or perhaps I should say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, because by the end of my journey, I was doing the same.

In motorised traffic, this habit gets a little more dangerous. Cars as well as the uncountable electric bikes, scooters and mopeds, all approach you uncannily closely before giving way. What is more, the lanes for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles are usually one shared space, and usually they contain traffic both ways.

And yet, I did not often feel unsafe. With all the millions of people I have seen pass during that month on the road, I did not witness a single accident.

Most of all, I think this is because 1) drivers keep to a modest speed, much more modest that you would expect in a place where most formal traffic rules become irrelevant. And 2) people look at you. They ‘do’ traffic through a continuous visual and aural negotiation with each other, rather than by ‘blindly’ obeying traffic lights. The result is a general worming and pushing, rather than people flashing past (or into) each other.

The same happened on the sleeper trains. You share a single space with 66 people. Everywhere, bodies sleeping or eating or brushing their teeth. Feet and heads sticking out from the berths. People happily come by for a chat or for dinner on your bed. I was not always ready for this, but that was just me being from a different culture. So I had to get used to it!

But what I wanted to come back to, was the fact that people look at you. Of course, I was obviously a foreigner, and this seems to have been quite a bit of an attraction to many Chinese. However, a strange person in Wiltshire or Drenthe is not looked at in the same way as a European in the prefectures of Guilin or Yichang (which are both popular tourist destinations). In Europe, I think parents would admonish their children: ‘Don’t look!’ In China, they might sooner ask their child to take a photo. People stare at you unabashedly in the street – and they smile. I don’t think I have ever smiled back at people so much in my life. In fact, much of our interaction was so weird (to me), that a giggle was always lurking near the surface.

In this highly touristic place - for Chinese tourists - people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: 'Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!' (in Mandarin)

In this highly touristic place, people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: ‘Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!’ (in Mandarin). After all, the place is primarily touristic for tourists from China itself. They received some laowai spectacle for free. (Photo by author)

A lot of strangers also came to us with, for us, rudely personal questions. Most were just either being friendly/curious, or showing off their English (this group did not understand our answers anyway…). Yet it made me realise that there is a third option between either getting angry or complying completely with demands you do not feel comfortable with: you can always laugh and move on to the next topic. As a visitor, you want to respect the fact that norms are different in different places, and what is impolite in one place may be polite in another. However, at the same time, you have to protect yourself from your own cultural ignorance that makes you so vulnerable to abuse from the more mercenary types. Accommodating to the people you are visiting does not need to be an all-or-nothing question.

I won’t go into any post-colonial issues now, or the current goverment’s policies, though of course these also played a role in creating my experiences. But the simple fact that so many Chinese people whom I met, were so easy in looking at you, touching you, sharing things with you (or from you), talking to you (or shouting at you), made me in fact feel very free. It was not always nice; it was not always pleasant; but I felt a certain carelessness come over myself as well.

A fellow European tourist may have experienced something similar as we visited a hot spring. In order to take her mud bath, she had to change into her bathing costume. Afterwards, she reported that there had been no other option than to change in an open space full of strangers, women and men. As she told this, the horror in her voice mixed with elation and carefreeness.

By the end of the journey, I was no longer minding other people’s bodies so much, nor my own. I no longer cared so much where it was, what it was doing, whether it had the right degree of visibility or invisibility or normalness, and what or whom it might bump into.