Alright, so I know that I look different than most of the people here. I know that I carry with me enormous privilege with my white skin, English language and light-coloured hair (to name a few). I know that this privilege is my responsibility to recognize and acknowledge; it is the lens through which I am seen, no matter how “Chinese” I feel while I’m here. It is always with me and always will be. I also know that I am given great advantages, globally, as a result of this privilege and that any kind of complaint may well contradict this statement of acknowledgement.
But. . .
Here in China, I have experienced my first real taste of the disadvantage of difference. It’s high time I did. This white girl needed a dose of reality, I say. Bring it on.
Well, okay maybe in small doses. It’s good for the consciousness and hard on the spirit.
I was waiting for my friend to arrive at our meeting place before attending a concert at the Forbidden City Concert Hall. This is a beautiful venue located right downtown, across from Tian’anmen Square and next to the Imperial Palace. It’s the Beijing equivalent to Massey Hall (Toronto) or Carnegie Hall (New York) and I was done up to match the environment. I wore a new dress and some fancy shoes and went all-out so as not to look like a scruffy musician (for once).
I arrived by subway five minutes early and slowly made my way up to the entrance to the Imperial Palace – a logical choice for a meeting place as the huge poster of Chairman Mao is widely known. We were meeting “just under Mao” and the political double entendre made me smile.
My bright red dress looked good last night, I have to say. I was proud of my outfit and felt like I had scrubbed up rather well and would have no trouble blending into the highbrow theatre-going community. I strolled along and took some photos and just as I arrived I received a call from my friend (who I was meeting) who was stuck in traffic. He said he’d be about ten more minutes.
There I was, alone and surrounded by tourists (mostly all Chinese) who found me to be a great source of interest and delight. One young girl approached me and asked me for a photo with her. She was beside herself when I smiled and responded in Chinese. I know that she wanted a picture because I am a a white and blond foreigner (who was in a pretty dress). She kept saying “ni hen piao liang!” (you’re pretty!) and I found myself just slipping into my performer mode. I posed with her for a photo just as I would if a fan asked me for one after a gig. I also seized the opportunity to ask her to take a picture of me in return and she did. Then, she and her mother left with a wave and a smile.
Seconds later, a large group of people from a different province (because their accent was different to my ears) got very excited by me and started to point and laugh. They started taking pictures of me without asking and then came over to me with a small child in tow and motioned that they were going to take my picture, as though I were a circus trick or a street performer stationed there. There was much talking and not a single kind word was actually said to me; they were just surrounding me like I was a fixture for their amusement. I said “bu yao” which means “no” or a more polite way of saying “get lost” (literally: don’t want) and then I walked away from them and turned my back. I could hear the cameras anyway. I turned around and said, “that’s not polite!” but I think I got the words in the wrong order because they didn’t seem to register my meaning and just snapped a picture of my angry face and acted like my turning around and their successful shot was the equivalent to winning the lottery with their cameras.
I was very flustered by this point and felt totally vulnerable there. . . alone. . . in a dress.
Then, this young man sauntered up to me with a sticky smirk on his face. He thrust a pamphlet into my hand and got much closer to me than I’ve experienced with men here in China. He asked me if I’d gone to the Great Wall (in Chinese) and I answered him that yes, I had gone and I didn’t need the pamphlet, all the while backing away from him. His buddies joined him then and suddenly there were about ten young men around me all talking to me at once. I was answering them when they asked me questions while simultaneously looking for my escape. I eventually backed right into the white stone railing of the bridge behind me before realizing that I couldn’t go any farther in that direction.
Other people were looking on like it was some sort of spectacle. Surely they’ve seen white people speaking Chinese before! But it wasn’t just that. I was a lone, white, blond woman in a fancy dress and I was creating quite a hubbub of exuberance in these young men, joking and remarking and pushing each other, that it was enough to start to draw a small crowd of onlookers.
For the first time since arriving in China, I felt really unsafe and scared. I haven’t felt that way in so long.
I think this is why I rarely wear dresses.
I pushed through and past the group to break free of the cluster and then I started to quickly make my way back to the sidewalk closer to the road. When I did that, they laughed like I was a great big joke and I heard them commenting on my tattoo when I turned my back on them.
As I walked, I dialed my friend Rui on my cell phone, fuming mad (my typical response to fear) to ask him how to say “F*** OFF!” in Chinese. This is a very forward question here and to explain my angry tone, I told him what was happening and he taught me the word immediately. Then he offered to stay on the phone with me for a while until my friend arrived. I was relieved by this very logical suggestion and people miraculously left me alone as I was talking and so we chatted for about ten minutes before I realized that I was running out of battery power. I had to hang up because I didn’t want to be without a cell signal while my theatre date was still late (now twenty minutes) and possibly couldn’t find me in the crowds.
Suddenly, the guards all lined up and started their formation for the flag lowering ceremony which apparently takes place on both the Tian’anmen Square side and the side I was on (gugong) and so it is a popular time to visit the entrance to the Imperial Palace. I had mistakenly timed my arrival with this daily ritual, which suddenly explained the ballooning crowds.
They corralled us into two groups, east and west, and I found myself pushed with the herd to the east side. I got a call from the friend I was meeting and he had arrived on the west side; we were impossibly close but I had no idea how I would cross the barricades to get to his side of the entrance. He had a good idea, though, and he rushed through the underground walkways and arrived up on my side about ten minutes later, apologizing profusely.
I was just happy to see him and excited to shift the energy of the evening to a more relaxed, less stressful vibe. I smiled and took a deep breath. Right on cue, my cell phone died.
It was time to go to the theatre.
In my dress.