Four months into my life as a newly minted Beijing resident, I made the following discoveries:
1. Public loos are great if you prefer to do your business with no doors and several squatting Chinese grannies staring straight at you.
2. With pork dumplings, there is no limit.
3. Having a white man call you “my Indian princess” in bed is an excellent way to bring all proceedings to an immediate, awkward halt.
Correction: Let’s make that supremely awkward.
For those interested, yes, I did carefully delete his number approximately a second after we said goodbye. It was the first time this had happened to me but it wouldn’t be the last.
In transit haven
I live in Beijing, a city of over 20 million people, with a history that dates back three millennia. Beijing is also where China’s identity crisis makes itself most evident – the struggle to hold to its traditions, while attempting to shake them off in a race to become modern and Westernised. Its winding hutongs, with homes that were built centuries ago, also house designer boutiques and craft breweries. English-language schools – not all of them legitimate – continue to mushroom, and while the expat population is primarily formed by English teachers, it also includes IT professionals, entrepreneurs, and guidance counsellors who prep harried Chinese children and their still-more-harried parents for universities abroad. Most are from European countries and the United States and predominantly white.
Beijing is a transitionary city for expats – few stay back forever. There are the grizzled veterans of course, but three to five years is the cut-off point for most. If you stay on, you are in it for the long haul. But thing is, you will almost always head back. The pollution aside, Beijing still has a culture which remains alien for years after you have experienced it. Add to this the tiny difficulties of navigating daily life – and the idea of permanently settling in Beijing seem daunting. By the time you get to know someone, say expat friends who have been here for years, it’s time for them to leave.
It is the same for Chinese women. “That’s my roommate from Australia,” my roommate had once told me, perfectly matter-of-fact, pointing to a massive collage of pictures on the fridge. “He’s now back in Australia. Here’s my boyfriend from the Philippines. He’s now back in the Philippines.” She has been dating a Briton for six months now, and the murmurs about him wanting to move back soon have already begun.
“It’s like you get excited about someone new, but at the same time, you can’t get that excited either. I think it’s sad,” wrote an expat woman in a Reddit discussion about dating in Beijing. Everyone is either leaving, already has a partner from back home or just wants to mess around, she said, which makes long-term dating a difficult prospect. “[People here] simply don’t have the will to put their hearts on the line every year because you could get [someone new] every year or semester due to this huge turnover.” She ended by recommending that anyone planning to date in Beijing better have a very optimistic outlook.
To see and be seen
I am 27, and until November, called Mumbai home.
It is weird to be exotic for the first time in my life. I am often the only brown face in a bar, a supermarket, the subway, or the street. Even more frequently, I am the only brown female face. Since I moved here, I have seen exactly one other woman who vaguely resembled me, and she turned out to be Middle Eastern.
The language barrier (I am learning Mandarin but I have not yet achieved fluency) means that my dating pool is usually limited to American or British expatriates. We find common ground as outsiders – we rave about an episode of Bojack Horseman and complain about how Tinder keeps breaking down on us because it needs VPN or virtual private network. It is a bubble, yes, and, often, a comforting one. Like all comforting bubbles, it is one which you need to constantly remind yourself to step out of, or you will never get to know your new home. As I discovered, it is also a bubble which soon enough, bursts on its own.
“Indian girls smoke, eh?” Jason grinned, drunkenly, as I and a couple of others ducked back indoors after a smoke break, at a popular brewpub. I was way too tired and a little bit tipsy, to answer that one seriously.
“Yep, and guess what? Some of us also… drink,” I said, winking at him. From the mild glee that crossed his face, I knew exactly what he was thinking. I smoked, I drank, I didn’t seem like a virgin. In dude-speak, I was a bad Indian girl.
It is one of those things that my girlfriends and I are used to back home – that efficient classification of sanskari, or traditional, and non-sanskari. But in Beijing, it is odd and frustrating to have to tell people: yes, a lot of us have had sex outside of marriage, we drink and smoke, we have gay friends, we might be gay ourselves, and yes, we have occasionally had our minds messed with by more than “weed lassi”. I had assumed that globalisation meant I would not need to keep explaining my actions. But several expats here are from rural states deep in the American heartland, and I am often the first Indian they have met. While Jason is not representative of all Americans, there are a lot of men like him going about. They know little about my life in urban India, and to be fair, I know little about where and how they grew up. I listen to a Southern drawl and there is a part of my brain which jumps to quick judgement, just as they might be do when they hear my accent.
“English teachers,” I sniffed, with acquired derision, as many of the expats working non-teaching jobs here do. Being an English teacher is considered something that requires little skill and is a guaranteed job, as long as you are white. “Most of them couldn’t make it back home and they come here to be treated like royalty,” said Kirsten, who works with a Western tech company. There are layers to white expat life that become apparent with time – the ideas of the “good” and “bad” expat, for instance, hinge on how well you are assimilating into local Chinese life, how often you make the offensive and nonchalant admission of having “yellow fever” – or the sexual obsession of white men with Asian women – and how you navigate the social structure in a land that is both intensely intrigued by foreigners and wary of them.
Hooking up in Beijing
Dating platforms offer a glimpse into this world. There is a homegrown version of Tinder called Tantan, like China has for virtually every global social media platform it has banned. There’s Weibo for Twitter, Youku for YouTube and Baidu for Google. It looks the same, with drastically different results.
“Yeah, I’m just gonna stick to Tinder, I’m sick of this,” ranted my friend Kevin after having uninstalled Tantan from his phone, a few bumpy months after he first tried it out. In a series of hilarious events that is familiar to veteran expats, Kevin had been talking to a Chinese girl (let’s call her Sara) for a couple of weeks. The conversation was constant, if a little stilted. They would discuss the usual: how their day was going, Beijing’s smog and how different it was from North Carolina, where he had grown up.
It all came to a crashing halt when Kevin asked Sara if she would like to meet him sometime. Almost immediately, Sara stopped replying. This particular instance was exactly like the last three – Kevin never heard from any of them again. Tantan has the notorious reputation of being an app which Chinese girls use only to talk to expats to practise their English.
So now, Kevin and I stick to Tinder, or OKCupid. The fact that it does not require VPN to use has ensured a robust user base for OKCupid. It was also my own port-of-call when I first visited Beijing, on a month-long trip across China, last April. I swigged Yanjing beer on the pavement at 3 am with an English teacher from the UK, tried fried snake at Wangfujing with a Texan IT guy, dug into bowls of lamian at a tiny noodle shop with a Chinese graphic designer. The last one called himself a “globalised Chinese guy” – perhaps there is something to be said about the fact that at least two Chinese men described themselves thus on their profiles.
It had been a gloriously blurry fortnight – one that had let me have all of the fun without having to deal with the mess. I remember Ryan, the Texan, talking about how he was trying to not to date tourists anymore and I had laughed, “Isn’t that a good thing? You meet, have a great time and then they’re gone! There’s no drama.”
Nope, he had said. “After a point, you get sick of everyone leaving.”
I already understand what he means, how real the sense of exhaustion is.
The inside of my head is a confusing place to be. There is a part of me that takes unconscious pleasure in being exotic for the first time. I languidly revel in my Otherness. But there is also a part of me which cringes intensely at being fetishised because of my race. My experience of China is tied to the colour of my skin. I have had people staring at me on the subway (it can get tiring but it is never threatening). I have had Chinese teenage girls call me pretty and take a selfie with me, grannies telling me my eyes are piaoliang or beautiful.
But I do not know what it is like to have someone crack a joke about your skin colour, assuming you won’t understand what they’re saying, as my Botswanan hostel roommate last April had told me. She spoke fluent Chinese and retaliated the first couple of times, but then, she said, it became easier to ignore. When I think of her, I check my privilege.
White is fine, maybe even a status symbol. Black or brown is not. The urge to snag a white husband among Chinese girls has also translated into rage against laowei (foreigners) who “steal” their women. The Sanlitun stabbing incident, where a Chinese woman and her French husband were attacked by a Chinese man with a sword in broad daylight (allegedly because of aforementioned nationalist rage) is still discussed in expat circles. My Chinese friend Jessie talks about how she has been called a “whore” on the subway while she is out with her foreign boyfriend.
Back home in Mumbai, I went all my life fitting in. Average had been a blessing. Average build, average height, average colour of skin – I never knew what it meant to stick out like a sore thumb. I do now. The feeling of scrutiny I anticipate each time I go home with a guy, is different from the usual body-image anxiety that my women friends and I are so familiar with. In Beijing, I compare myself to all the races of women they have probably slept with. I feel representative of my race. I don’t know if my body will be good enough for the White Man’s eyes. It is terrifying, really, the way these skin-deep feelings of inadequacy, these society-and-media shaped notions of desirability, sneak up on you.
I tell myself I am hairier, I am smellier, I am bumpier and lumpier. Sometimes before a date, I find myself wishing I could climb into new skin. I wish I had only the barest hint of down on my upper lip like my blonde friends, I wish I were as effortlessly fragrant as my Chinese roommate. There are times when I tell myself this is all largely in my own head, that maybe, just maybe, the boys I am with find me beautiful too.
I wish I could blend in. But then I also want to stand out. I want to negotiate the two. I want to be “good enough”, whatever that means. I don’t want to feel different. I want to be independent of the cultural baggage that comes with my body, at least in that most intimate of spaces. Or at least, have it be part of me, instead of the other way around. I want to be liked. I don’t want to be racialised. I want and don’t want to be special.
And then, I get called “my Indian princess”.