5 Questions You Get When You’re the Only American in Town

When you’re the only foreigner on a University’s campus and the only foreigner in your town, you hear a lot of strange things. There are a lot of stares – some of the older people in the nearby village have only seen a blonde haired human being in movies and magazines. And those who can speak enough English to strike up a conversation are so nervous, they tend to blurt out the first thing they can think of.  Here are the top 5 things I hear from Chinese people on a daily basis.

#1. “Where are you going?”

This is usually the first thing any Chinese person will ask me. I guess it’s their version of how are you or what’s up. The second question is always, “have you eaten?”

#2. “How do you know how to use chopsticks!?”

eating chopsticks chinaEvery time I eat with a new Chinese friend for the first time, they always ask if I need help. What they want to say is, do you need a fork? But they often don’t know the names for western silverware. When I shake my head no and pick up my chopsticks, they seem thrilled and impressed.

They inevitably compliment my skills with chopsticks, like it’s some sort of olympic sport and ask, “How do you know how to use them?!” I explain that I’ve been eating sushi since middle school and they are surprised to hear that we have chopsticks in America.

#3. “Will you get a Chinese boyfriend?”

Let me just start off by saying that I have never been attracted to Chinese men. The vast majority of them are smaller than I am (always a deal breaker, whether you’re Chinese or anything else) and given that I don’t speak Chinese, it’s difficult to communicate, even with those who speak some English. China is known for many things, but handsome men is not one of them.

Even though I always shrug and say I don’t think so, the giddy Chinese girls often push the issue. In China, it’s a pretty terrible thing for a 28-year old woman to be unmarried, so they’re concerned for my wellbeing. It seems like one of the very most important things in this culture is to bear children, so they think I’d better get married soon or I’m doomed.

They ask what my parents think about me being single and I tell them it’s normal to be single at my age, but they don’t seem to believe me. They usually offer to introduce me to a single guy they know and sometimes they’ll even him bring him to meet me. The most recent setup attempt was with a 32-year old man who drives cars for the University. He was 5’5” and didn’t speak a lick of English, but the women raved about his good looks. Oye vey.

#4. “Can I take a picture with you?”

Or sometimes they don’t even ask. Just last week, I was eating my lunch on campus and a line formed around the table. I was alone, so I guess the cafeteria ladies decided it was their golden opportunity for a photo shoot. If I’m asked I almost always oblige, even with strangers. I never want to say no, hurt their feelings or be rude and give them a terrible first impression of Americans and western culture. There are definitely photos of me with random smiling Chinese folk floating all over the Internet and in many cameras and phones.

When I’m out minding my own business, I often notice someone nearby pretending to take a photo of a tree or landmark, but the camera is zoomed in on me. Last weekend, I was at a bus station with a few American friends and we noticed multiple cameras pointed in our direction. More than one foreigner in one place causes a huge spectacle!

#5. “Is America just like the TV shows?”

Their exposure to the world beyond China is limited. Like, very limited. Most American websites are blocked, very few will afford to travel outside the country in their lifetime and I’ve noticed that the news we receive here is quite different from what I read on BBC or CNN. They have a totally different perception of what’s going on in Hong Kong right now than what western news outlets are reporting. But government censorship is certainly an issue I won’t delve too deep in, especially while I’m living here.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you something was forbidden? You wanted that thing even more. You probably became obsessed with obtaining it. Well, that’s kind of what I see happening in China. They are absolutely fascinated with the English language and American culture.

Everywhere I go, I see people wearing clothing covered in English writing. They have no idea what it says and half the time it makes no sense whatsoever. There are misspelled words, bizarre phrases and disconnected images. We foreigners call this Chinglish.

chinglish shirt china travel

What’s a harnican?

They also love watching American TV, but the few shows they can access are a pretty terrible representation of our culture. Popular shows include old seasons of Vampire Diaries, Big Bang Theory and Gossip Girl. Their fascination with America combined with lack of real-life exposure means all they know is what they learn on shows like Desperate Housewives. I have had to reassure countless Chinese people that not all Americans are beautiful and wealthy, not all American women are stay-at-home wives having an affair with the pool boy and we don’t all partake in illegal drugs. Glad I’m here to set the record straight!

chinglish shirt china travel

What’s arowerful? How about unpreoicyable?