The Sore Thumb

As privileged as this may sound, it is really strange to feel like an outsider. I’ve spent my entire life as a white, cis gendered American who grew up in a rural area in Wisconsin— the whitest place on Earth. Although my socio-economic status as low class could prove adverse at times, I was relatively good at blending in at the macro, social level.

That is, obviously, not the case in China. A heavier set, blonde, American woman walking down the street draws a lot of eyes. Everywhere. All the time. I’m not complaining or disturbed by this attention— I can’t rightly say that it is drawn from negative thoughts or ire— but the constantly turning heads, catcalling, and random “hello!”s can be a bit of a surprise for someone who has been a part of the mainstream masses for, basically, their entire life. It is just very strange. Even the dogs and cats follow you with their eyes as you walk past.

This, for me, has been very humbling. I’ve always been relatively sensitive to the racial dynamics in Madison, supposing myself an ally in the recent racial struggles taking place in the city and the whole of Wisconsin, as well as the nation. My role as a reporter during a large portion of the Tony Robinson coverage really, really opened my eyes to the very present disparities operating seemingly unbeknownst to a majority of the city’s privileged population. I had always wanted to bridge that knowledge gap to bring more attention to racial struggles, on both a micro and macro level. I spent years of my life becoming familiar with all the concepts and avenues.

Only two and a half weeks of exposure to a completely new racial dynamic has turned those ideas on their head. It’s not like I know how it feels to be black or brown in Madison— I will never know— but I now have a better appreciation for the simple struggle of existence in a mass of bodies that don’t resemble you, don’t speak your language, and who hold presupposed assumptions of who you are.

For that reason, it is sincerely interesting to talk with the people of Tianjin about my purpose for being here, where I come from, and what my impressions of China are. While shopping last weekend, I spoke with a shopkeeper and some of her staff for about a half hour about my studies, the current state of China, and about myself personally. It was nice to get personal input on China’s air pollution problem, foreign students in Tianjin, and their perception of Americans. She was very surprised at my Chinese proficiency, and impressed at the foods I’ve tried so far. Being engaged at 20 was also very strange to her, and she commented to her friends that America had different dating styles than in China. I chuckled to myself— people in America are surprised when I say so too.

I also ran into a woman at my favorite tea stand who was perplexed as to why I’d come to China to study. I told her I had come to improve my Chinese and to see what China had to offer, and she just couldn’t believe that anyone would be interested in coming to the PRC. After I mentioned that I was only staying for six weeks, she said I was probably better off only staying for a short time. Her nihilism both impressed and unsettled me.

My ability to converse with all these different kinds of people, of course, stems from the excellent instruction I’ve received both back in Madison for the past 2-3 years and from the increasingly thorough teaching I’ve been offered here at Tianjin Normal University. My professors expect nothing short of perfection, my TAs are ruthless in getting us there, and my tutor is the sweetest, most patient, and exceptionally effective mentor I’ve ever had. When trying to think of critiques for this program, I come up really short. There are short periods of time when I regret not staying for the entire summer, but then I start to miss my fiancé, my cat, my family, my apartment, and Madison in the summer. And, I guess, my job too, with all the dad jokes and shots of espresso right before close.

And, as privileged as this may sound, I kind of miss blending in a little too.