Saturday, 11 July 2009

Chinese Saturdays

I still have lots to post about China, and have decided to start ‘Chinese Saturdays’. There were many experiences that I wanted to share on my blog, but it was quite unwise to whilst I was still in China, as doing anything that was seen to ‘bring the school into disrepute’ was a fireable offence – which for me would’ve meant losing not just my job, but also my apartment and my visa. And although getting deported would certainly make a fascinating blog post, it’s not quite how I wanted my stay in China to end.

Inevitably, some of these are going to be quite critical of the behaviour of some Chinese people and some parts of the Chinese educational system. This has caused me more than a few second thoughts – although there were moments when I cursed the day I decided to go, I developed a strange fondness for Shijiazhuang, the ugly, hustling, adolescent city that it is, and China in general, and feel slightly guilty about writing negative things about the place. But…I started my blog originally because I wanted to describe my everyday life, and it was not all dogs eating noodles. So… goes….

One of the most delightful things about being back in the UK, is being able to walk down the street without attracting attention. In Shijiazhuang, I used to cause people to fall off their bicycles, small children to cry or hide their faces and, once, a small girl started jumping up and down, pigtails flying, pointing and screaming ‘Meiguoren! Meiguoren!’ at the top of her voice as she spotted me through a bus window.

(Meiguoren means American, most people in Shijiazhuang assumes a Western foreigner is American.)

Sometimes it could be comical, sometimes, as with small children, it could be quite sweet. A few people genuinely just wanted to say hello. But the vast majority of the time it would be annoying at best, threatening at worst. Mostly it would come from a group of men, who would stare bug eyed at me as I walked along the street, then would all start to alternate cat calling ‘Helllllllllllllllooooooo’ or ‘laowai’ at me and snickering wildly.

Then there were the times that people on a bike or a car would be staring at you so intensely that they’d nearly run into you as you waited to cross the road.

Walking through the housing estate by my school and then eating at a barbeque place with a male Chinese friend, he commented on how ‘conspicuous’ he felt with me, that everyone was looking and making comments. He was astounded when I told him that this was the least attention I’d ever got when out and about.

On paper, it’s hard to capture the grinding effect this has, when you can’t go to the shop across the road, or to the gym or the supermarket or the park without being stared at and harassed, treated more like an escaped circus freak than a fellow human being. Or when everything you do is a mini diplomatic exercise, and you’re hyper aware that whatever you do or say is being judged, often against an already prejudiced view of foreigners, and foreign English teachers and British people in particular.

And that’s even before you have a conversation…

Photographs are 'recycled' monumental communist statues as seen at 798.
Edit: This is a snippet in response to Roseki's comment. Despite what guide books say, based on my experience, female foreigners are actually considerably safer in China than male foreigners.


  1. I often wondered about what restrictions you had to place on your writing when in China. I look forward to the unexpurgated Chinese Saturdays.
    I know that in Russia statues have a significance way beyond that which we place on them in the UK. Is it similar in China?

  2. See, this is what I keep reading about with regards to me going to India... especially if I go without a man, and even more if I end up going on my own (which is more likely). I just hope I don't let it suffocate me.

  3. What a horrible way to live--being treated like a circus freak every time you go out. It must be refreshing to be able to go out in public now without such treatment. The detail with which you describe your life in China makes it so vivid to me, it's almost like I'm watching a documentary on TV. Well done!

  4. I also feel the need to add that this didn't happen in Beijing, Xian, Yangshuo, Qingdao, even when outside of hardcore touristy areas. I think it's because Shijiazhuang is almost entirely populated with first or second generation rural migrants (the city was a small village only 50 years ago). As such, I think people there often have much more negative views towards foreigners and much more 'backward' ideas of acceptable ways to treat them than more metropolitan areas of China where people can be better educated and have more open minds.

  5. Must have felt weird and threatening to be stared at all the time.
    I will tune in to your Chinese Saturdays. I'm sure they will be interesting.

  6. I must say your photos of Bath are better than you older China photos. Seems you have more time and mind to take photo and to write. I also like the China Saturday, each photo of that blog tells a story.

  7. Some things don't change. I was a VSO teacher in Hunan - in an agricultural university outside Changsha in the 1980s and for many I was the first foreigner they had every seen.

    I tell you - it takes some getting used to trying to use the loo with lots of Chinese onlookers!