I just realised I’m illiterate

This is one of those instances when you come to a sudden, often unwelcome, moment of self-realisation. Luckily for me it is laced with ironic humour, but the fact of the matter is: in Chinese, I am illiterate. I am not even on a par with my fellow Chinese-learners who know as many (or as little) characters as I do, because I can speak Chinese “fluently”. It might descend into pidgin Chinese or Chinglish at times, but as long as the conversation doesn’t veer off into unfamiliar vocab territory, I could pass for a southern Chinese girl (southern accent thanks to my southern mother and Taiwanese father).

We all have to do a lot of adjusting here in China, and much of that involves modifying our own perceptions of ourselves. For my white friends I imagine it means getting used to suddenly becoming a minority, probably for the first time in their lives. I don’t know, I cannot speak for them. I know for myself, I am stuck in a weird kind of limbo. Sure in England I am a “minority”, and this has often resulted in negative treatment or situations, but I have never particularly felt that I needed everyone to know that I speak English, or to look white to get that across. Here, I feel like if I just looked like a 老外 (foreigner) it would actually make my life a lot simpler.

The sad fact is, foreigners are treated differently to Chinese people: better. Often with more regard and respect. As a foreigner, I feel kind of entitled to the same treatment – minus the staring and photo-taking, please. Am I not British after all, with English as good as (if not arguably better than some) English people? But of course everyone assumes at first glance that I am a local, and I am disregarded as one of the masses. It is quite sad to be treated as a sub-human compared to my fellow expats, when we are on the same level.

On a broader level I have a massive problem with the very fact that foreigners are treated better than locals. Is that not the reverse of my own country, and many others? Of course racism in any form is unacceptable, but it makes a lot more sense to take care of your own and shun outsiders, than the other way round. It is tragic that I am finally in a place where I blend in and look like everyone else… yet I am worse off for it. It is a result of a system that does not care for its own people, but reveres foreigners, and it’s sad.

Still. Used as I am to a democracy, educated as I have been to think for myself and critically analyse, privileged I have been to enjoy freedom of speech and thought all my life, and a First Class graduate I may be, here in China… I am an illiterate. My relative cerebral liberty and perception count for nought in day-to-day life, because all my cognition happens in English, and my lofty political ideals are not going to help me when I walk into a restaurant and can’t read the menu, nor when I am trying to do something as simple as sign up for dance classes but cannot read the timetable.

We have come to China, and we have no choice but to get used to it quickly. Whatever and whoever we were back home can disappear in a second, because at home we are not. The ugliest, stupidest loser back home can become a girl magnet here simply by virtue of being white. An (ahem) intelligent, educated girl like I can become a stuttering, illiterate fool. I know most of my fellow expats get annoyed when nobody speaks English, or when their heavily accented Chinese is not understood, but we should understand that here, we adjust to China, not the other way around. If we don’t like something, the entire country is not going to bend its back to suit our 老外 wishes. If I’m illiterate, I damn well better learn to read some Chinese.


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