the best is yet to come


“Foreign girls are so brave. Your parents cut you off at 18 and then you’re left on your own. I wish people in China did something similar.”

I nod, silently wishing that I could still spend the rest of my manicure finishing up the Sunday Times, but the girl in front of me is really happy that I understand Chinese and so we keep talking. It’s a familiar conversation and a similar topic to ones I’ve discussed with countless taxi cab drivers, my ayi, and the other girls who had the misfortune of filing my nails (I always chew them when I am too anxious about life and work and all the things in between).

“How long is the flight back to New York?”

“How much do foreigners make in Shanghai?”

“16 hours? But that’s so long!”

“Why do foreign girls marry so late?”

“Why are you not married? You live with your boyfriend. You should be married.”

“How much money do you make a month?”

“Foreign boyfriends don’t judge you if you drink at bars.”

“Do foreign girls drink at bars? I always see them drink on Yongkang Rd.”

It’s conversations like these that plunge me back to the little things I take for granted. Because, it’s hard not to feel the need to curtail my privilege with this kind of talk. It’s also frustrating, because for as much of the conversation that I can understand, I lack the ability to express what I really want to say back in Mandarin, or even apologize to the girl for living in her country, but for not living like a local. Instead, I sit there, stare at my pink sparkly nails, and feel guilty about having the freedom to be able to see my boyfriend every day instead of having to take a four-hour train to Anhui once every two weeks.

This is a conversation that I can’t escape from for as long as I live in China. Well I mean I can escape from it, if I close my ears, pretend not to speak the language, or just ignore the girl. But it’s the kind of conversation that it feels wrong to escape from, sort of a transcultural ‘We need to talk’. And I know I don’t do enough to curtail these misconceptions, because every time I hear that “foreign girls are more beautiful” because we have taller noses, all I can do is awkwardly smile, just because I can’t find the right words to say. In this case, I tell the girl she has beautiful eyebrows (because she does, I don’t care that they’re drawn on).

And maybe this is just a silly conversation in a silly nail salon, and it doesn’t actually mean anything because not everyone thinks this way. But it does bring me back to the fact that I am living outside the rules of Chinese society, even if I don’t think about it until I’m getting a manicure. I’m not bound by worries about the right Hukou, the right permits, or filial piety. And maybe the girl just wants to be heard, and I’m helping just by listening. But it hurts that I can’t understand more.

“It makes me happy to talk like this during work, otherwise I’d just be bored”


4 thoughts on “Freedom”

  • I had to look up “filial piety” then. And I’ve never heard the phrase “taller noses” before which just shows the things you don’t consider.

    When they say girls are cut off do they mean not in a bad way but in a cultural sense (this is my imagining of Asian family structure) as they’re not bound as closely to the family, having to look after elders, and get to live their own life?

    • I think the parents are meant to ‘take care’ of the children until a much older age, with the implicit understanding that the children will take care of the parents in their old age. One of the reasons I told the girl that people in the West tend to marry later (late 20s, early 30s or so) is because we can’t afford to do so earlier, since we need to save money to buy a house and a car (although that ideal is changing). Her reply was that in China all of that is provided by the parents (actually by the bride’s parents a lot of time which is its own issue)

      Yeah, the tall nose thing seems to be a matter of a wrong interpretation, because what I think is meant in this situation is that we have high-bridged noses (which again I don’t know if it’s considered attractive), but the same word 高 is used, as would be used to describe a person’s height.

  • Personally, I felt that being an expat that understood everything made life in Shanghai way more stressful. After listening to colleagues on what they dream to do vs what they think they’re supposed to do is so heart breaking. Whereas sometimes, I just want to smack them. I mean, how on earth are you supppsed to do with relationship advice such as ‘it is better to cry in a BMW then to smile and on a bicycle’ ie dump the poor bf who makes you happy and date the rich guy who can buy you stuff (?!?!?!?) At the same time, I admired that they’d say stuff like this out loud. In many countries, people feel too esteemed to say how they really feel.

  • Funny how sometimes the most frivolous of activities or random conversations can remind of how some rules do not apply to even someone who has become relatively “localized.”

    I was chatting with a friend originally from the US who lived in China for many years… fast forward to marriage, baby and now living outside China, had to return to placate her MIL who had a crisis as felt they ‘failed as parents’ as did not buy them a flat in Shanghai?!

    Whereas here in India, parents don’t necessarily buy their kids a flat as expected to live in a joint family – making it all the more convenient to have parents help out with rearing the next generation (together with the ayah) and then be taken care of in their twilight years. These expectations are shifting though…

    Different strokes for different folks….

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