We have seen quite a few other ‘foreigners’ on our ramblings around our new home city. I wouldn’t say that the place is saturated with westerners but you see quite a few in Italian restaurants and in the more shiny parts of town. They’re certainly not a rarity…but I haven’t really seen any foreign children. Perhaps it’s because families tend to live in Pudong, the more suburban, recently developed area of Shanghai as that’s where all the international schools are located. Maybe it’s because it’s sweltering outside and most sensible Europeans, Americans and Kiwistralians have sent their children back to more temperate climes for the sweaty season. Maybe it’s because I’m not looking in the right places, or looking at all.
We did come across another non-Chinese couple of complex provenance who had a daughter about the same age as Baby A as we were getting pizza last night. They had been in Shanghai for about a year or so and when I told them that we had only been living here for four days, the mother - let’s call her Melinda (because I can’t remember her real name and she looked like a Melinda) pursed her lips together and winced, “Good luck sweetie, that’s all I can say”, she trilled. I politely moved away. She floated past our table on several other occasions throughout the evening and we attempted a few other strains of conversations, all of which left me cold. She told me about a good playgroup she attends, adding “and it’s fairly Chinese free” as though she were outlining the facilities. I was tempted to point out that she was in the wrong country if avoiding the Chinese was a life goal of hers but I suspect she already knew that. I mentioned that I was thinking about looking for a kindergarten for Baby A and asked her if she knew of one. She told me at length how she believes it’s more important for a mother to stay at home with her children for the first three years of their lives and how she would never leave her child for others to look after. As if to neutralize the possibly offensive nature of everything she had just said, she added ‘but that’s just my opinion’.
I smiled and nodded. I have met people like her before - in China and in Singapore. They don’t learn the language, they don’t explore the culture or enjoy it, they look down on locals. They live in a total expat bubble, frantically blinkering themselves from the reality that they live in China. I suppose I’m not really one to judge them. I am fond of many elements of expat bubblehood and maybe they didn’t choose to be here. It annoys me though - that kind of negativity. It’s an -ism, like racism, but acceptable somehow, maybe because most westerners in China are a little bit guilty of it. It’s believing that we are better, separate, more refined, smarter because we’re western. It’s cultural imperialism. It’s ugly. But to an extent it’s also unavoidable.
It’s almost impossible to integrate into Chinese China - not without the language which is extremely difficult to master. And maybe even with the language, maybe even then it’s still impossible. And because we’ll never really assimilate because we, foreigners, by virtue of our foreignness are not Chinese - obviously.
I read an article today by an American man whose wife worked in the Wall Street Journal and he travelled with her to Beijing and was essentially the stay-at-home dad. A Chinese wife who doesn’t work is often referred to as a Tai-Tai - this man, in his own words, was a Guy-Tai. The advice he gave to newly arrived expats in China was “surround yourself with positive people, and focus on what’s there, rather than what isn’t”.
I don’t think hanging out with Melinda is going to up my positive chi factor but I gave her my email address anyway. I can’t really afford to be batting away potential friends on the basis that I don’t like them. If we do become best buds, I’ll have to remember to delete this post - someone remind me.