As I checked my watch I realized I was going to be late. It’s already 6:55, and I was supposed to be at Zhongtiaolu station at 7:00. I counted six more stops until I reached my destination. Once again my friend Winter’s English abilities had left something lost in translation. When she had texted me an invitation to dinner at the hotel she worked at I had assumed the stop “on line 1, close, 3QU” would have been a 20 minute ride, but after 40 minutes of traveling it dawned on me once again that the Chinese idea of “very close” is much the same as the Chinese idea of “ten minutes”– i.e. closer to an hour.
Winter’s English abilities, though better than most, is still colored by a thick – sometimes indecipherable – Chinese accent. When I arrived at the station I heard her even before I saw her, yelling quite loudly that something “So sucks!” I see her and Cici standing at a nearby exit speaking to each other, and quickly make my way toward them unsurprised to hear them speaking English with one another. It is not uncommon for me to hear them speak English with each other, without the benefit of a foreigner being present. Since I first met them, both have seemed to fall into a new category of Chinese youth who I perceive to be obsessed with western culture. They speak English constantly, wear exclusively popular western brands, love American pop music, and have found a niche in the local expat circle as everyone’s favorite “Chinese friends.” At first glance they seem every bit the contrast of what one would consider a traditional Chinese girl: outgoing, social, bubbly, etc.
I met Winter my first week in China at a language exchange, and grew to become friends with her in the context of the local Nanjing expat social scene. She is a small girl, barely five foot, and very pretty with long hair and an always smiling face. What first struck me about her is how loud and boisterous she is, always shouting her unique mixture of pidgin English and Chinese, never speaking it. I originally thought her to be much different from the shy, reserved Chinese girls I had been meeting, and this observation proved to be true the more I got to know her. Cici too, is very untraditional. Tall and elegant – Cici is a model-turned-English teacher. Her English is much clearer than Winter’s, and as she greats me I notice an affected British accent – something she has been trying out since recently starting to date an Expat from the UK. Both girls are dressed head to toe in popular western brands: Ugg boots, BCBG Sweaters, Chanel Bags.
We walk toward the hotel Winter works at chatting about what we all did during the day –working sleeping seems to be the consensus. She explains she has tickets to the Hotel’s buffet that some of her clients had given her as tokens of their appreciation. The buffet is large and I grab a plate and a table. I watch awed as each girl brings over at least three or four different plates of food while happily complaining how fat they are going to get. If I close my eyes it sounds just like my college friends back home – had the table been lined with Pinkberry Cups and Johnny Rockets burger wrappers instead of noodles and duck it could have practically been the same thing.
I think about it for a second and realize that in the few months I have known them, I have only seen them with other foreigners and maybe one or two other Chinese friends. Western friends dominate their social circles, and this once again makes me think of how different they are from the other Chinese girls I have met. My roommate for example is a quiet, reserved girl who upon moving in with me told me I was the first foreign girl she had ever become good friends with. While Winter and Cici can often be found after work going to restaurants, bars, and clubs with expats – my roommate and her friends who are all around the same age are usually exclusively with other Chinese students spending their nights playing games and watching TV. Both types of girls are hard workers, concerned about their futures and filled with a sense of wanting to make their families proud, but I see in Cici and Winter a desire to become more connected with the Western world. I feel that they think to be western is to be modern, and are starting to cast off some of the social morays they had been raised with here in China –becoming more and more like me and other typical American 20 somethings and less and less like my roommate and the average 20 something Chinese woman.
This is most obvious as our conversation turns to their favorite topic: sex. Cici turns to me and asks if I had slept with a guy she had seen me talking to the night before. Shocked I ask her why she would think that. She replies, “Because it looked like you like him.” This is not the first time I have been made aware of the fact that they tend to think American girls are rather casual about sex. They are fascinated by my and therefore “American” opinions on sex and dating. They constantly ask me about my love life, and are often disappointed by my not living up to the standards of sexual liberation they think all American girls share. When I tell them that I didn’t although I did kiss him goodbye, they both laugh at me and say I should have gone home with him. Whereas when I told my roommate this same story she and her friends –also pretty young 20 somethings — were shocked that I had dared kiss a boy. Now that the floodgates have been opened Cici starts asking me personal questions about the nature of her relationship with her new boyfriend. She keeps using the phrase “is that normal for waiguoren?” She seems to want reassurance that her behavior with him is normal and appropriate to a foreigner. I find it interesting that she seeks this approval, and as I assure her that whatever she is doing is fine regardless of whether or not she is Chinese and her boyfriend is foreign. Winter then talks about a recent date she has had with a German expat excitedly commenting that she has finally found a “gaofuwai.”(tall rich and foreign) We laugh at her joke and I ask her if she has ever had a Chinese boyfriend. She says yes of course, but then she and Cici both agree that foreigners are better.
Their fascination with foreigners and their sex lives is very interesting to me. I feel that in a lot of ways this obsession with being a modern young woman includes being liberated sexually in the sense that they can make their own choices, something which I agree with; however, this obsession with defining what is appropriate sexually with the bounds of what is “normal for foreigners” seems a bit dangerous especially when most of their ideas of foreign sexuality are based on shows like Gossip Girl. It’s easy for me to see in a culture where premarital sex, casual dating, and interracial relationships are often frowned upon, this is a sort of rebellion. A way to break free and separate themselves from what they see as an outdated culture.
We sit eating desert and Winter orders drinks for our table. It never fails to shock me how much they enjoy drinking. Whereas I see most other young people in China refrain from drinking, or being unable to handle their drinking – both Winter and Cici have the drinking habits of a typical American college student. They enjoy alcohol, and have figured out how to handle themselves despite low tolerances for it. The topic of conversation turns to which bar to meet up with our other expat friends at. Another thing that always surprised me about them is how they truly seem to relish the local bar scene with an enthusiasm I’ve only seen matched in other foreigners. It’s not uncommon for them to go out four or five times a week – probably not uncommon back home but unusual here in China.
Once again they tease me that I should really go home with that guy if I see him, and I find myself blushing and wondering what my mother would think of my brash Chinese friends. I laugh them off and reach for my coat and Cici comments on how beautiful she thinks it is asking what brand it is. I laugh and tell her it’s just something I bought at target, not a brand name, but she still insists she likes it. She then goes on to tell me how beautiful she thinks I am and hugs me. I’m always surprised by how affectionate they both are, constantly hugging me and kissing me on the cheek, always wanting to hold hands. It seems a bit absurd to me that someone who once modeled in Shanghai could find me at all glamorous, and I can’t help but thinking perhaps part of my allure is the same as the knock-off Michael Korrs bag on her arm – I’m foreign and therefore different. As we try to catch a cab I tell them once again how much I love them, and I really do. They are two of the most interesting people I have ever met, and have been incredible friends. To me this night was just another example of what makes them so very interesting and relatable. Like me they are just normal 20 somethings trying to define themselves, and that is what I think made our relationship work so well. We are both attracted to each other because we are different and exotic to each other, yet at the same time facing the same struggles of personal identity and the complexities of making our way in the world.