Toto, We’re Not in Kansas


What does it mean to be a white girl in China?  Pretty much all of my life I have been in the ethnic and racial majority everywhere I have lived.  From growing up in a little mountain town in Western North Carolina, where some still believe the Confederacy will rise again, to attending a highly selective, private liberal arts school which, until a few decades ago was an all male majority white southern school, thus far I have never been a minority.  The issues of women’s rights and gender equality are still being worked out and will continue to take time to solve, however, to my knowledge my gender never played a role in the quality of my education or restricted me from any activities. In China, however, these traits, both race and gender, have played a significant role in my trip thus far.

To begin, I am living in a city of over 23 million people, so personal safety is definitely something that I must think about more while I am here compared to home or even small-town Davidson.  We women have been advised not to take cabs on our own, or walk alone after dark (this is a little more difficult as it gets dark here around 7). Nationality and gender combined have also been interesting topics as our professors have mentioned that the stereotypes of American women have been gleaned from Hollywood films, therefore, we are presumed to be loose, easy, and up for anything with the right proposition.  Armed with this information we all knew that it was going to be an exciting, if not interesting, semester in Shanghai.

Not only has the heightened emphasis on gender been a change for me, but also I am a minority here.  I knew that coming to China being a minority was a reality, but in my ignorance I did not fully comprehend what that would mean.  I have the advantage of having studied the Chinese language for a few years so I can converse on at least some level with the locals, but I still feel that I am living in a very limited social sphere.  The people thus far have been nice and try to help me when I am lost or looking for something, but it is a very isolating feeling to know that at this point I am stuck in a cultural and linguistic bubble.  For the first time in my life, I am able, in some sense, to understand what it might be like to be a minority in the US.  I am not trying to compare our situations at all, but it is an eye-opening experience.

In the US I know people who are so quick to say “Oh everyone must learn English,” and others who get so upset when they have to slow down and take the time to work with a person who is new to the English language and struggling with it in some way.  In China, however, I silently rejoice when I go into the city and am able to speak English to the wait staff in restaurants or run into other foreigners who can chat with me in our native tongue.  In the same way that conversations occur at home behind closed doors, I would love to know what is said about our group when we leave.  Are the people happy that we are in China to study, learn about their culture, and learn the language, or as those in the US, do they wish that we would make more of an attempt to use their language before so quickly asking “你说英文吗”(Do you speak English)?  I came to China knowing full well that the national language is Chinese, but still am overjoyed when during my interactions with people they switch to English so as to ease our communication problems.

Over the past few weeks in China, I have not only been the foreigner who struggles with the language barrier, but also a tourist attraction.  As our group walked up and down the Bund (a gorgeous waterfront view of the Shanghai skyline bordering a section of the Huangpu River), countless people have either stopped and asked to take a picture with us, or simply pulled out their phones and recorded us as they walked by.  At first this was a strange sight for all of us, but by now most everyone is used to it, although not always comfortable.  It is a very strange feeling knowing that when those people go through the pictures from their trip, along with the picture of the Mao statue, the Bund, and the shinning KTV tower, there will also be a picture of me, the random foreign girl they happened to run into while they were out.

Even less than a month in, this trip has shaped me in ways I am sure I have yet to realize.  Throughout the whole time I continue to be amazed by what adventures each day holds.  My greatest gift thus far, however, has been the awareness and consequences of being in the minority.  It is a feeling I will carry with me back to Davidson and hopefully on into the rest of my life.  With this new lesson under my belt, I can’t wait to see what China is going to teach me next.