“We had those things that are famous in Shanghai.”
“Xiao Long Bao?”
“No, they were these little things filled with meat and stuff…”
“No, they were these little things like rolled up with stuff inside. They’re really famous and typical of Shanghai.”
I lived in Shanghai for a little more than a year, and I’ve got no idea what this guy from a work trip is on about. I’ve already named the small dumpling things that I know from my time there. I used to eat Shanghai dumplings with soup inside every Saturday for lunch. I took cooking classes to learn to make different kinds of dumplings from Shanghai. I used to eat Xiao Long Bao with my best friend at a strip mall in Aurora, Colorado. I’m pretty sure he’s talking about xiao long bao.
“Hey, what were those little things we had in Shanghai?”
Dim sum is not from Shanghai.
“Oh, yeah! Dim sum! It’s a typical Shanghai food. I’m surprised you didn’t know what it was.”
Resist. Don’t say anything. Just let him say wrong things. It’s cool.
It’s not like a whole group of laowais with less experience living in China than you and your husband are listening intently to his story. It’s not like he just questioned your knowledge of a city you lived in for a year when he’s been living in a different Chinese city for a few months, having been to Shanghai for a couple days once. It’s cool. You don’t have to say anything.
“Dim sum is from Hong Kong. Er, near Hong Kong. It’s Cantonese cuisine.”
It blurted out of my mouth before I could stop myself. Great. Now I look like a dickhead for correcting someone in conversation.
Immediately after that, the majority of the group of laowais on the work trip opted to go to either a shitty chicken restaurant or a Japanese izakaya for lunch, when there was a family-style Chinese restaurant just up the road. We ordered in Chinese and ate like kings. My Chinese isn’t great, but it’s good enough to say, “One of these and one of those, please!” and “Two bottles of cold beer, thanks!”
After lunch, a different young person asked me, “What’s a family-style Chinese restaurant?”
The question confused me. What do you mean, I wanted to ask, it’s a normal Chinese restaurant….?
“Oh, you know, a relatively cheap place where you order a few things and share the food.”
“Oh, but what would you order?”
“The same things we usually order at a Fujianese restaurant, like Lychee Rou and a seafood chow mien.”
“Oh. I guess I’ve been to a restaurant like that.”
We go like once a week to a place like that. Where are these people eating normally? KFC?
“You know that Chinese people never…”
“I’ve never seen a _________ here and I just think that Chinese people don’t use them.”
“No one ever ____________s here. I think they don’t have a concept of _________________.”
“What are you gonna do about it? They know we can all swim, right? Can you even swim? Ask him! Ask him if he can swim!” –> Directed at a lifeguard/security team at the beach, where the signs clearly stated in English NO SWIMMING and DANGER: STRONG CURRENTS (We went in anyway, but there was an onshore wind and it was probably a little dangerous to be fair.)
The number of times I’ve heard the kinds of conversations above when living in China are so many I couldn’t count them if I tried. Just on the work outing on Tuesday I heard so many eyebrow-raisers that I felt compelled to interject in a couple conversations that I was witness to, especially when they were rudely asking the security whether they could swim or not.
“They don’t know anything about this beach! I know people who surf here all the time! They can’t swim and they don’t know anything, I can’t believe they won’t let us swim!”
I wanted to ask them if they would say the same thing to a Western security guard.
I want to be clear that I don’t think they were being overtly racist or anything. It can be really hard to live as a foreigner anywhere, and it’s easy to get frustrated at someone ruining one’s fun or getting an order at a restaurant wrong or not knowing where you can buy a particular item. The problem is that implicit and explicit bias begins to creep in at the edges, poisoning the interaction and making you blame “culture” when you could easily blame “confusion,” “ignorance,” or “temporary situational dipshit syndrome.”
The problem is the generalisation itself. Any conversation about what Chinese people really think or what they know about or what rules and regulations they have that doesn’t include an actual living, breathing, willing to participate Chinese person is likely to have big problems. As a foreigner, we’re necessarily limited ourselves. We don’t know what we don’t know. We often can’t understand the language fully and have to guess what people are saying and how they feel. Even if we ask someone who can speak English very well about a problem, they are only one person. A single data point is never a good basis for a sweeping idea. I call this the “There are no lemons in Korea” bias.
It goes like this:
Sweeping generalization, “There are no lemons in Korea.”
It’s perfect. So simple. So practical. So laughably false. There are lemons in literally every grocery store I’ve walked into in this country. Even dried ones. Obviously this frustrating person is living in an alternate reality, never leaves her apartment, or is wildly unobservant. A lot of the claims that those of us who live here to teach English make about Korean culture could be a result of those and other missteps. If we’re able to be so deeply mistaken about the presence of lemons, how much worse must it be when it comes to Confucian-informed ideals or Korean attitudes toward women?
The answer is that there may be a nugget of truth in the generalization about the size of a lemon seed, but that anyone can be utterly mistaken about a place they live. In the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Or because of miscommunication. Or a simple lack of observation. Or being a bit tired and not at one’s best.
I have seen it everywhere I’ve lived abroad.
But the main problem isn’t actually the inevitable misunderstandings or even the implicit bias.
On the whole, the folks I’ve met in the last year have made me feel somewhat sad about this broad, beautiful international life I’ve been living. People who come here to teach aren’t exploring. They aren’t trying to learn any Chinese. They aren’t making friends with Chinese people. They aren’t eating in Chinese restaurants. They don’t know where dim sum come from. In many cases, they are just living a life similar or the same to what they do back home, and complaining about all the things that they perceive as different. On the whole, they aren’t even trying to counter the Lemon Bias. They aren’t really experiencing life here.
I keep wanting to ask, “WHY ARE YOU HERE, THEN?”
Why. Why are you here? If you don’t want to be, surely the economic situation isn’t as bad as when I left the wasteland of job applications in 2010-2011 during the Great Recession back home. If you don’t want to eat Chinese food, why bother living in China? If not being able to read a menu makes you nervous, why not learn a few characters for the things you like to eat? If you really think that you know better than a person born and raised here whether the sea is dangerous today, you’re wrong. As I told that guy after saying politely that they were asking rude questions, and I didn’t think it was appropriate, “It can easily come off as if we know better than the people who are from here, and that they don’t know anything about their own country. That’s just not true.”
I’m not always happy with living in China. There are parts of Chinese culture that irk me. I’m sure I irk them back at times (most of the time). That’s what this is, this living abroad thing. It’s never fully comfortable. That’s the point. That’s why I keep doing it.
It’s worth it to learn and to experience and to be vulnerable. I’ve definitely absorbed the Aristotelian lesson that the more I learn about the world, the more I know that I know nothing about it. It does make me a bit lonely, though.
People don’t like someone who mentions that the Chinese beach guards just said, “Yes, of course I can swim, but you ask them if they can swim in THAT?” gesturing to the currents and rocks with crashing waves. It reveals the hidden lemons they were certain didn’t exist. But I’ll keep doing it, since there are lemons in Korea and I am willing and able to learn more about China all the time.