Today I experienced something that isn’t party of my usual life in the U.S. As I was walking through my housing complex, a little girl very obviously pointed at me and smiled as her embarrassed grandmother tried to get her to stop.
I’ve been in China now for about a month. Even though I’ve lived here before, it still takes some time to settle in. Some settling in tasks, like finding an apartment, are part of any move. Others are unique to or significantly complicated by being in a foreign country.
After arriving in Jinan and checking into my hotel, one of my first to-do’s was to get a Chinese SIM card for my phone. I easily found a China Unicom shop, but they told me that to buy a SIM card with a passport (instead of the ID that Chinese nationals have), I would have to go to the main service center elsewhere in the city. So that had to wait until the next day.
My first task on my first full day in China, though, was to go for the physical examination required for getting a residence permit. On the way, I stopped at a small shop to get passport photos, the first of three times I’ve done that since I’ve been here. After briefly wandering around the hospital across the street, I found the building for the health exam. There was a group of foreign students from another college there, so I kind of followed them around as we went through various procedures: blood test, urine sample, height and weight measurements, electrocardiogram, ultrasound, vision, and chest x-ray.
After that, I went to take care of my phone. The store from the night before had been kind enough to give me directions to the service center, so I knew generally where it was. Of course, there were several other Unicom shops along the way, but none of them possessed the magical power to sell a SIM card to a foreigner. Eventually I found the place and set up a cell phone plan with little trouble.
Settling in here has been full of reminders that I’m a foreigner. Some have been genuinely inconvenient and even invasive. Others have been sources of real joy, even giving me the opportunity to introduce myself to an equally curious and cute toddler. Part of this, of course, is that my neighborhood is getting used to me too. Whether it’s the kids around my neighborhood or the nice couple that sell me mantou (steamed buns) every day, eventually they’ll get to know what I’m about, including that yes, foreigners do eat mantou and even rice too.
Before I left for China, a friend was telling me about the diversity statement she had to write for law school applications. It reminded me that I’ll probably have to write an application document like when I go on the job market. It’s not something I necessarily look forward to. It’s not that I’m opposed to diversity at all; but as a white, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, Protestant, private school-educated, male…I’m almost certain not to shift the demographics of any institution where I work or even neighborhood where I live towards greater diversity.
Except in China. It’s the only place where I think I can come remotely close to really feeling like a minority, where I feel like I have to play by someone else’s rules, where I might have to decide how to respond to a more or less derogatory word (i.e. laowai), where someone finds my skin or hair or beard unusual, or where I’m the person a child finds strange enough to point at.
It’s really not like being a minority – of basically any kind – in the U.S. There is no history of systematic oppression of people of my race here. Even as a graduate student on what is by American standards a relatively modest stipend, I am economically privileged. I am confident that my home government will do its best to protect my legal rights. On any given day, I have less reason to fear for my physical safety here than many people in the U.S. do. When people find me strange or funny, it’s not attached to any deep social stigma.
So the comparison is faulty in so many ways. The thing is, though, that I don’t think I could have ever realized that apart from my experience living abroad and settling into a foreign place. While I think we tend to think of diversity and living/studying abroad as separate categories of engagement, they can be productively related. It’s one thing to instruct students about various disparities in the U.S., but I think it’s hard for many students, at least those with backgrounds like mine, to really be in a position to learn without being in a position where they have the opportunity to live as a minority in one way or another. I genuinely hope that my knowledge about China and experiences living here will prepare my students to engage with the world beyond the U.S. But I also hope that I will equip and challenge them to put themselves in positions to become the kind of people who can help address the serious problems we have at home.