Thursday, October 20, 2011

The China Diaries: On Belonging, and Other Lyte Entertainments

Living in a foreign country gives you all sorts of new insights, into the place your living, yourself, and even the place you've left. That's why all the books recommend it if you get the chance. The same thing happens when you move from one part of a country to another, but it is obviously going to be exacerbated when the move is on a larger scale.

One of the more profound realizations I've come to here in Xi'an has not been about China, but about the U.S., and it was spurred by what reads at first like an obvious statement; not one single person in Xi'an has ever, nor will anyone ever assume that I am from Xi'an. You can giggle if you want, but speaking as a born-and-raised resident of the United States, that's kind of a new thought. Not completely so, but it was never quite so crystalized as it is now.

In the United States, short of some piece of evidence compelling us to assume otherwise, there is no ethnicity we automatically reject as native. It's not something I was conscious of until I came here. The population of China is so homogenous that it's glaringly obvious I'm not from around here. I wasn't, to clarify, under the misunderstanding that I would be able to blend right in; I just never considered why it is that doesn't happen in the U.S., and why it is that when I look at most people from China, I don't think to myself "Different".

On Tuesday night, walking back from school, a young girl of about four or five saw me walking by with a coworker and yelled "外国人!", Chinese for "Foreigners!" She started jumping up and down with excitement, and even followed us for a few paces. That simply does not happen in the U.S. As a general rule, our children don't assume ethnically different people to be outsiders, because experience teaches them that they probably aren't.

I'm not using this to make any sort of point. I don't think it's a bad thing, or a good thing. But it is something I find quite fascinating. It's a small difference with large implications. One of the teachers who's been in Xi'an for three years still regularly has people end conversations with "Welcome to Xi'an!" As he said, "Yes, it's very nice that they welcome me, but I've been here for three fucking years. Stop welcoming me." It serves to remind you, in no uncertain terms, that you can never really belong here, no matter how you try.

To be fair, that's part of what I like. I'm a sucker for attention.