What Travelling Taught Me About Being a Foreigner

My life as the local foreigner (part 5)

When I moved to the US at the age of 6, I hated it. I loathed having to relearn everything that allowed me to function in normal society and being relegated to being a social outcast. Looking back, the experience was the best thing that ever happened to me. Being put in an uncomfortable situation made me look at myself in a different light and challenged me to be a stronger person. This latest trip to China was especially challenging because of my preconceived opinions about the country and my vastly different prior travelling experiences. My status as an American Born Chinese (ABC) only added fuel to the fire. Of all the trips I have taken so far, this was by far my most difficult, and I am ever more grateful for the opportunity it has given me to reflect on myself and the privileges I have enjoyed as a foreigner.

My status as an outsider

As a young woman of Chinese descent, people were often quick to come to my aid whenever I ran into trouble during my travels. East Asians, mostly wary of having to use English, would not purposely avoid me when I tried to look for help. Even when it became clear that I did not know their language well, they would try their best to communicate with me and even praise what little I knew. In Europe and other Asian countries, people were likewise quick to offer their help because of how different and perhaps powerless I looked; a short, young Chinese woman did not seem like much of a threat. My ability to look harmless and foreign when it was beneficial afforded me assistance that other travellers and perhaps some locals would not have. Some were undoubtedly trying to sell me services or goods, but many sincerely wanted to help. It has often allowed me to travel with ease and often gave me a privileged look into places. Locals’ overly warm reception was a wonderful thing that made travelling rewarding, but their willingness to help also became a detriment.

While the warm hospitality I experienced held true for all the countries I have visited thus far; China was less willing to help this wayward daughter. Due to a long history of Chinese people scamming good Samaritans, people were unwilling to offer help to anyone that was not outwardly foreign. Even after I explained that I was from America and could not speak Mandarin, strangers who I approached for help would complain about my lack of ability to speak Mandarin and then leave. My friends who were clearly foreigners had a much different experience whenever they walked the streets of Shanghai.

Without knowing a word of Mandarin and sometimes without asking for help, strangers would approach to offer their assistance. Some even insisted on providing their WeChat information and phone numbers just in case help was needed in the future. I could not say that I was completely shocked, but the difference in my friends and my treatment highlighted for me how much I had relied on my foreignness as a crutch. Because I expected to be helped when I needed it, I did not strive as far as I could have to master the local language and was often ill-prepared. As a traveller, I was often aware of the disadvantages but clearly enjoyed the perks without recognizing them.

Being a foreigner is not a reality that can be refuted with a denial; we cannot simply remove the label when it is convenient to do so. Instead, it is better to actively recognize the privileges that come with being a foreigner and to work harder to be able to function without invoking the crutch of exoticism. The effort towards assimilation is respect not only towards local people and culture but towards ourselves as well.

My Freedom to be Me

As I have alluded in previous parts, my relationship with China was always slightly strained, filled with assumptions and sometimes nonsensical hate. Even after I landed in Shanghai, my cold personality towards China stayed mostly the same. Part of the problem was my lack of ability to communicate and the other was the stark contrast between the built environment, whose amenities rivalled that of most world-class cities, and my perceived lack of manners among Shanghai locals. The way I described it (much to the chagrin of my Chinese colleagues) was that Shanghai was a first-world city with third-world culture. Although Shanghai was technologically advanced, the people were still accustomed to spitting and defecating on the streets and thinking only of their own comfort. I understood why this chasm existed, but it still frustrated me. I hated waiting in line, only to have people repeatedly cut in front of me without so much as an acknowledgement of my existence and being surrounded by people who did not seem to care one iota about the damage they were causing to the environment and their own health.

It was a long six months dealing with Chinese people’s ruthless, self-preserving culture that did not meld at all with my softer personality. I had come to live in Shanghai after studying and living in Berkeley, the antithesis to all things China, for the past five years. Humility and understanding were qualities I had to constantly remind myself to exercise, since I was a guest and had no right to judge people as it was their right to act as they pleased. My struggle to fit in as a child in the US taught me that assimilating was a quintessential part to living in a foreign place. Learning the language and accepting the natural flow of things were just the basics.

Despite knowing this and trying my hardest to be open-minded, I could not accept China the way it was.

The means by which the culture and work environment operated ran completely against the basic tenants of my being. I could not ignore the greater environment and society for the sake of fleeting, personal gains, and I refused to behave as if public spaces were my private dumping ground. It was the first time in my life that I absolutely refused to assimilate.

I realized in my refusal to accept modern Shanghai culture as my own and in the few consequences it wrought me that as a foreigner, I had the choice to choose who I wanted to be. In China and many other East Asian countries, to go against the grain meant certain failure for most. People who stood out or dared to be different could often be ostracised by their family and by society. Being congruous with everyone and following all of society’s rules were virtues which East Asian children were taught; traits that I never learned having come from a particularly odd household of fiery personalities. Living amongst people focused so keenly on the same, mostly materialistic goals made me realize how important my individuality was to me and was my most coveted privilege as a foreigner. Although I loathed those who used their status as an outsider actively to do as they pleased, I was grateful to be given the choice to adapt rather than to be forced into the existing mould.

My Camera as a Weapon

Since picking up the camera in 2012, I became obsessed with documenting the places I inhabited using a candid and sometimes voyeuristic lens. My images sought to reveal the beauty in the everyday moments that we so often take for granted, which often meant taking photos of strangers with and without their expressed consent. Some people did not bat an eye at me while others made clear just how uncomfortable they were. The camera, although a ubiquitous existence in our modern lives, was still a tool with which a photographer could exert their power over the subject. It intruded into personal space, the sacred territory which protected us from unwanted advances. I sometimes found myself deleting photos or had photos deleted for me when people, especially Chinese military personnel or public officers, asked me. People without the same authority often just turned their backs or moved elsewhere. When I approached people to show them the image I had taken of them, many would not warm to me until I revealed that I was a tourist. When I made it clear that I was a foreigner, people were more willing to allow me to take their photo. Some even happily posed for me.

The speed at which their tune changed when I revealed my status as an outsider reminded me that as a tourist, the usual rules of engagement did not apply for me. I was given a “pass” because it was assumed that I did not know better or possibly because I was a more likely target for business. Regardless the reason, the difference in treatment made me realize that I was understanding my subjects through a distorted lens. The images produced was an altered reality, changed by my shallow understanding of their lives and by their biased opinion of tourists. Furthermore, as an artist with an aesthetic agenda, it was easy to fall into fetishization.

Photography had the ability to not only invade private space but to also degrade and to destroy the subject. In our pursuit of art in a world of aesthetic consumerism, the camera had the power to alter human behaviour and to shape physical landscapes. Changes brought by the power of the photographic image had the potential to enact positive change, but what tourist had the time to take on such a mission?

As a tourist, I was allowed to capture as I pleased without any thought to the consequences. I sometimes took advantage of that status in order to get the shot that I wanted, and that insensitivity reminded me that as photographers, our role was to not only capture beauty but to also understand our ability to affect our subjects. Our privilege as tourists did not mean that we should use it to exploit but that we should be aware and to combat its usage when it had the potential to harm.

Although six months flew by quickly and without grave incident, the daily annoyances and the few but precious interactions I had made me think about the privileges I enjoyed as an Asian woman and foreigner. It made me realize how much of them I had used in the past to make my trips more convenient and to fulfil my sometimes self-serving needs. Most importantly, my varied experiences being an outsider illustrated to me the power I held and reminded me that I needed to be cognizant of the consequences of my actions. Some realizations were burdensome, even depressing at some points, but I came to appreciate the hardships and responsibility as they gave me a chance to reflect on myself and my work.

For some people, the hard part about travelling is the act itself, but for me, coming to terms with my role as a foreigner is even harder.

Part 5/7 of My life as the local foreigner, a series of photo essays exploring my time working abroad in China. To keep up to date on my latest adventures, follow me on Instagram.