Because I’m a foreigner living in China, people often say how lucky I am to not be chinese. They don’t mean it in a negative way, but usually when some pressure is building and they don’t like it. Like, pressure to get married.
“You’re so lucky to not be Chinese. I’m only 25 but my parents are already giving me so much pressure to get married and have a baby.”
“You don’t have a car? Oh, your so lucky to not be Chinese. I need to buy a car before I can find a girl willing to marry me.”
As a foreigner I don’t need to abide by customary rules here. I can stick my chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, disrespect elders, not eat all of the food given to me at a banquet, give a clock as a gift and all that rudeness will be forgotten with a simple “she’s a foreigner, she doesn’t know.”
And I have said it many times, especially in regards to marriage and filial piety. Many of my friends and students are miserable in their life choices, but it pleases their parents so they continue. “Glad I’m not Chinese!” I told my gay friend when he said he would marry a girl rather than come out to his parents.
But do I really escape the pressures of Chinese culture? The answer is no. Maybe I din’t have as much pressures, but living in a culture, and taking the time to understand it, kind of adds pressures that you never expected to crumble under.
I remember, even in the beginning when I knew very little of China, my ex would carry the bags after shopping. In China the men always carry bags, from shopping to purses. My ex fell under that pressure pretty quickly, because if people saw us walking, him with no bags and me with one or two, they would clearly disapprove. “What’s wrong with him?” you could hear them thinking. So he would carry the bags.
Or my age. In Hangzhou, I started lying about my age. Because the aunties on the street who would talk to me made a big deal out of me being over 30 and not married. I’d have to sit through conversation after conversation about all the single guys they knew who I could marry. (In China, being over 30 and not married is culturally verboten. You are seen as a freak or something is “wrong” with you.)
I find myself falling into this mind frame more than I’d like to admit. When I meet a single guy over the age of 28 I’m always on alert. “What’s wrong with him?” I find myself thinking. Cause if he was normal and cool and funny, he would have been married off long before.
But I hate that way of thinking! And kick myself every time I do it. Maybe the guy just likes freedom, maybe he is fighting his own culture wars and insisting that he does things in life in his own terms. I should be giving him the benefit of the doubt, but usually my first thought is suspicion.
And I’m not the only one. Recently Jocelyn over at Speaking of China wrote how the fact that she didn’t have a car to drive home for Spring Festival brought her to tears. She’s American and in America, owning a car is not at all a big deal. If you had to take a plane, or train back home for Christmas and had your parents pick you up at the station, not a problem. No one would think less of you. But in China, car ownership is a bigger deal. It’s a sign of success. Or if you don’t have one, it is seen as a sign of failure. And her reaction, her tears and frustration, was a reaction to culture pressures. Chinese culture pressures. I don’t blame her at all because I know how she feels.
Even the different local cultures affects me. In Hangzhou, on the bus, people were very stingy with giving up their seat on the bus. Only for a very decrepit person who could barely walk, would they do it. As a result, I found myself being stingy too. But here in Xiamen it is totally different. People pop up to someone with even a hint of age. Children as old as 10 gets seats immediately (even though many times they don’t want to sit.) People here are much more generous with seats on a bus, and as a result, I am too.
And I find myself admiring friends who buck convention. Like the couple where the woman is older than the man (crazy in China) or my friend who is mid-30’s and still single by choice. Or anyone who is divorced. I really admire them because I know how hard it is. And how much shit they have to deal with on a daily basis from a culture that dissaproves of their actions.
I’ll admit that part of the freedom of traveling is not being constrained by the rules of culture. There is a freedom of coming to a new place and just kind of blundering your way through things. But as you get more involved, and as you get a deeper understanding, things change. You slowly, and almost unconsciously, begin to adopt the unwritten rules of the culture you are living in. It’s not good or bad. It just is.