Essays from the Far East: “Othering”

Speaking in terms of “othering,” for a place like America, is a lot harder for me to single out than here in China. This is in part because I have little context of being an “other.” But, also, because in China, I obviously stand out simply based on my appearance alone. I don’t even need to speak a word before locals can look at me and label me with the term, “mei guo ren.” Back home, in America, we pride ourselves on being a “melting pot” of culture. Yes, there are racial tensions, class divides, gender discriminations, and other more nuanced ways of “othering,” but neither I nor my immediate peers draw these boundaries as easily and quickly as I’ve noticed in being an “other” here. For example, go to New York City and you’ll encounter people from all walks of life such that it’s hard to identify what the non-other really is in the first place. A place like Jacksonville Beach, where I live, has a much more tight-knit local community than even twenty minutes away to downtown Jacksonville. One can instantly identify a “townie” from a local at the beaches. Yet, I’m not sure how this is the case. There’s manners of speech, dress, behavior, etc. that directly signal to someone who has lived in that community for a long enough time that this person(s) is an “other.” These things are all relative, and I’m certainly not used to it. I’ve noticed how uncomfortable that can be when you are on the receiving end of “othering,” while staying here in China.

In China, I didn’t often find myself being an “other,” and when I did, it wasn’t immediately or instinctually uncomfortable. That is, I didn’t feel stared at, judged, or taken advantage of by the local people. I figured I might feel any of these three things, but the locals in Guilin didn’t spare a passing glance most of the time. This changed, however, as we ventured out more and more away from the CLI. My first encounter with really feeling like an “other” in China was in downtown Guilin when I was exploring a lake with some Guangxi Normal University friends. We were walking along a bridge, talking, and I suddenly noticed that we were walking right into a picture being taken by a group of Chinese people. Startled and embarrassed, I kind of jogged past the people in the picture so as to let them get their shot. But, to my surprise, I felt a hand grab my shoulder. Oh no, I thought, this guy is pissed and I don’t know how to apologize in Chinese yet. So I turned around to see an ear-to-ear grin on this guy’s face, as though he had just won the lottery, simply from my presence as an American. He, and his three other traveling companions, excitedly gestured to an iPad, signaling pretty clearly that they wanted me to be in a picture with them. This was odd. Nothing like this had ever happened to me as a passerby on the street in other countries I’d visited, and certainly not in America. So I took what seemed like twenty pictures of them rotating each other in and out of the frame, only to be met with another grin from the same man who grabbed my shoulder. He thanked me several times and shook my hand repeatedly. It was kind of jarring, but also a little cute and delightful. I glanced back a few paces later to notice him beaming down proudly, scrolling through his iPad. This was the only real instance that I felt pleasantness from being a photo-op for Chinese people. Several times throughout this trip, I have experienced similar instances of people imploring me to hop in their picture, sometimes at an inconvenience to my current task/errands. We’ve been in train stations, temples, parks, subways, etc. when people have tapped me or my group members on the shoulder for a photo. It feels as though I’ve experienced objectification for the first time. As a straight, white, cis-gendered, American, middle-class, male, I’ve really never experienced any forms of feeling out of “the norm.” In fact, I’m allegedly about as privileged as they get. But this felt like being a celebrity without having done anything notable or worthy of recognition. The more times I was pulled aside for photos, the more I felt a deep, gnawing sense that I was nothing but an object—a trophy photo for these people. Feeling that way made me even more insecure about these photos because I shouldn’t be that person to them. I have no connection or emotional bond with these people, no real reason that they should be taking a photo with/of me, other than factors beyond my reasonable control. I can’t help but think of the kind of photos we Americans take of poor villages in Africa, for example, and scrutinize the motivations behind the way we use their photos to motivate people one way or another. My situation is relatively innocuous as an “other” in China, but this experience has given me more perspective on the way in which we think about “others” in broader contexts than my own.

Feeling like an “other” goes beyond being treated a certain way, however. As I mentioned in my reflection of how this program has been transformational for me, I’ve felt immense discomfort and alienation at times in being here. The customs and ways of life in China trace back to factors that are at once explicit—through China’s rich and deep history—and at the same time implicit—through nonverbal cues and expectations (i.e. driving, walking, eating, etc.). Little things, such as avoiding stabbing your chopsticks into the rice bowl, seem ridiculous at first glance. The seeming disorganization of shops, of traffic, etc. drove me mad at first. But these little discomforts revealed themselves to be nothing more than simple differences. In other words, we do very similar things between Eastern and Western cultures, but we enact these things sometimes in very different ways. There are multiple pathways to the same goal, multiple peaks on the landscape. Being an “other” in China initially obfuscated that.

The language barrier is also a lot stronger here than in other potential destinations of travel. Unlike many of the places I’ve been, China doesn’t base its language on a latin-derivative language. There are, in other words, no cognates for me to latch onto with Chinese. While I didn’t want to learn the language at first, it was, in retrospect, beyond recommendable; it was essential. Six weeks in China seemed like an unnecessarily long time, but it was necessary to shock me enough to the point that I didn’t feel so much like an outsider anymore. I can now navigate myself towards the nearest lamien place, the convenience store, across a subway I’ve never been on, or basically wherever I need to go. I wouldn’t call myself “fluent” by any means, nor do I expect myself to reach that level. But I can get around just about anywhere somewhat effectively now. I feel confident enough to perhaps stay here, on my own, for a relatively small period of time. Assimilation is just practice, as far as I can tell.

China can seem really daunting, or at least it did for me, but, like most uncomfortable things in life, time and exposure to the uncomfortable thing really reduces that feeling.

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