A WAIGUOREN (FOREIGNER) IN CHINA
I come from a multi-racial, multi-cultural part of Australia and I have Italian, Scottish, and English grandparents. It is quite an experience going to China, and in particular, lesser known Changchun where yes, there are minority nationalities such as Man, Hui, Mongol, and Korean to name a few, as well as the majority Han nationality, but hardly any foreigners compared to the amount that you see in places like Beijing. In saying that though, foreigners are still a novelty to many Chinese in Beijing, but perhaps that is because many of the Chinese in Beijing are not originally from Beijing, and may in fact be viewing a foreigner in person for the first time. In other words, I stood out like a sore thumb with my natural brown hair, height, fair skin, and light colored eyes.
Every time a foreigner catches a bus in Changchun, or walks down the street, Chinese people say "waiguoren", or in my case "bairen", meaning "white person". I would even hear people call out the Chinese for "Russian" or "Soviet" as I walked past. I also had many experiences of being spoken to in Russian. Why Russian? Because in Changchun and Harbin, the capital of neighboring Heilongjiang Province, there are many Russians. Russia is a bordering country, and Russia also has a historic presence in the region as China became the "piggy in the middle" as Russia and Japan had their little spats. Russia also harbored dreams of building the railway through Harbin, to Vladivostok. Many Russians settled in Harbin, in particular, and in that city, there are many Russian buildings and Orthodox churches. So, the Chinese in the north-east are familiar with Russians. Even a Russian teacher at Changchun University thought I was Russian. Well, that just confirms it then: I must be Russian!
I found being called a Russian quite amusing. However, the assumption is sometimes a negative one. There are many Russians in the area who are either students of Chinese, or some may have even been born in China, especially in Heilongjiang. Unfortunately, Russian women have a reputation for being prostitutes. Several Chinese students told me stories about the Russian students who used to live in my building being picked up and dropped off by Chinese men. What is fact, fiction, jealousy, and reality is only for those Russian females to know, but one reality is that many Chinese think of Russian women as nothing more than prostitutes. So, you can imagine what assumption followed the incorrect assumption that I, too, was a Russian female. It is not the assumption that I am Russian that bothers me. It is the assumption that as a Russian I am a prostitute that bothers me.
If I was not called a Russian, then I was dubbed American. It was not exactly favorable to be considered American after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, not once, but three times in 1999. On the other hand, so many of the younger people want to imitate the American accent, and imitate American fashions and styles. I would not expect anyone to guess I am Australian, but just once, I would have liked someone to be a bit more creative than the usual assumptions that I am American or Russian. Are there not other nations on the planet?
There were several occasions when I was told that I look like the women in north-west China’s Xinjiang province. The majority of the population there are of the Uighur minority. The people look more Arabic, Middle-Eastern, Turkish, or Mediterranean. On several occasions whilst traveling in Xinjiang, which I will discuss in detail below, I was mistaken as a Uighur by Uighur people themselves!
I also had many experiences of having my hair touched and pulled by curious women, or being deliberately touched or bumped into by giggly school children, stared at incessantly, watched as I typed email messages at the wangba (internet bar), had my eyes pointed to because of their color, my skin rubbed and touched because of its fairness, and total strangers lining up to take a photo with me, or asking me if they can photograph me. It's not as if people have never seen a foreigner before. Most people, even in the villages, have a television set. Many students watch foreign movies. But many have either never seen a foreigner in person, or never spoken to a foreigner in person. On many occasions, I "acted Chinese" every time I saw a foreigner, and took a second glance at the person. The curiosity is one thing. Being charged more expensive prices because you are foreign and therefore assumed to be rich is another thing.