Yesterday, I lived the disconcerting in between-ness that is my present status in Shenzhen, which in turn has led to thoughts on assumptions about cultural purity and language as a symbol of cultural belonging.
My in between status is a result of the fact that I am able to function somewhat competently in Chinese contexts. Yesterday, for example, I needed to register at my local police station. When I went to ask our foreign liaison where I needed to go, she was helping a colleague pay his bills. Indeed, she had a notebook full of the account data that one needs in order to enjoy running water, electricity, heat and gas in a modern society because paying bills is a task that most Westerners cannot do for themselves in Shenzhen. In this case, I was more “Chinese” than my Australian colleague because I could not only pay my own bills, but also visit the local police station by myself.
Incompetence is one of the defining features of being foreign in Shenzhen. Indeed, the difficulties that Westerners experience when learning Chinese amplifies the mutual experience of difference. Thus, institutions that want to globalize hire liaisons to help foreigners do things like pay bills and register at police stations. In turn, westerners experience the effectiveness of this help as a sign of cultural difference. Smooth interaction means “no difference,” while convoluted and choppy points to incompetence, i.e. cultural difference.
Moreover, the level of difficulty in navigating from incompetence to competence seems to be a useful measure of lived cultural difference. In other words, relative levels of incompetence marks the experiential distance that we often feel in cross-cultural interaction. Thus, Chinese and Westerners see me as somewhere in between, classifying my relative foreignness based on how smooth my interaction with Chinese people is. Close Chinese friends frequently comment that I don’t seem foreign at all, mentioning that my accent is clearer than many Cantonese speakers, while many Chinese acquaintances use me as a yardstick to measure how far they’ve traveled the other way.
And yet. I have all sorts of pop-psychological theories about what this level of incompetence does to Western psyches, including the fraying of tempers and increasing rigid ideas about what is “the way things should be done,” but my point du jour is that relative levels of in/competence enable us to assert and maintain fictions of cultural belonging and exclusion simply because we feel relatively skilled in a given situation.The rub of course is that any interaction is a composite of many different skill sets and thus, the skill set we choose as a sign of cultural competence is a means of drawing a line between us and them, even when the line is irrelevant to any issue other than our cultural identity.
Yesterday, for example, there was a middle school student also hanging out in the office. One of the Chinese in the office said to him, “Say hello to Mary Ann. Don’t worry, she can speak Chinese.”
Student looked disbelievingly at me and then back at colleague.
“In fact, her Chinese is better than yours,” she goaded him.
“Really?” he asked her, but now focused more intently on me.
“Go ahead and test her knowledge (考验),” she continued.
“You want a child to test my language skills?” I interrupted. “What’s that about?”
“Ai,” my colleague said with a laugh, “you’re still a foreigner after all.”
I didn’t pursue the topic because the bill payer had left and I could get the address of the relevant police station. However, this exchange has me wondering about what kind of boundaries my colleague was trying to establish and why. After all, she wouldn’t have sent this child to the police station by himself, but had no qualms about giving me responsibility for going. Perhaps, he was an Overseas Chinese and she wanted to humiliate him into trying harder to learn Chinese. I don’t know.
What I do know is that it hurt me to have my place in the world – and for many purposes my world is Shenzhen – undermined, especially through an inconsequential exchange such as this. It made me feel insecure because at any moment what I might be trying to communicate could be dissolved simply by calling attention to my real linguistic incompetencies. In fact, the underlying message I received is “you don’t belong here” and short of interrupting the conversation, I’m not sure how else I might have intervened to assert my claim that I belong here, too.
We all share various sets of skills and incompetences, and we all deploy them to construct boundaries between “us” and “them”. Indeed, most of us are comfortable when these boundaries aren’t questioned. So in Shenzhen it seems that generalized Western incompetence in things Chinese and the concomitant Chinese desire to adapt their behavior to Western standards allows both Chinese and Westerners to feel “at home” in the world. Of course, whether or not that home is comfortable or not is another question. And that’s the rub. Because I live so obviously in between “us” and “them,” my in betweenness presents opportunities to those who wish to change these boundaries and threatens those who don’t. Consequently, many of my conversations are nothing more than a negotiation of how I differ from my interlocutor’s perception of what a foreigner is or should be in a given situation.
More hopefully, I am coming to understand my in betweenness as an instructive metaphor for the human condition. The boundaries that define us as people(s) really are where we make them through what we do and do not choose to learn and what we do and do not choose to make salient. Moreover, how and when and why we make these choices constitute invitations to and rejections of our various interlocutors. Thus, even if we didn’t choose where we come from, consciously or not, we choose who we’re with.