“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”