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My decision to go to Beijing, China for a summer literature institute provoked a variety of responses in those with whom I shared my plans. My family, adviser, and a sprinkling of friends enthusiastically congratulated me, and collectively foresaw a trip filled with adventure and experiences to reshape me. Others furrowed their brows and searched their memories for words of not-too-discouragement. “Isn’t it polluted, there?” “Will you be able to eat [as a vegetarian]?” they asked, betraying concerns for my heath and simultaneously continuing their search for some gem of information to change their reactions to my announcement. I didn’t understand, then, that the variety of responses foreshadowed my own time in a city hiding its astounding beauty behind walls of concrete, speaking language, lovely and impenetrable, and housing millions of beautiful people, none of whom looked like me.
What I saw as “the feminine” in Beijing—and certainly more in this city than in Chengdu and other areas of the Sichuan Province—further distanced me from the identity to which I cling, I now understand, like a drowning subject. I no longer wear ruffles, and rarely anything we could label as “flouncing.” I do still love a high heel or two, but not to walk great distances in a hot-a city—many many tiny steps in oppressive humidity and heat does not a pretty picture make, well, of me. Beijing women seemed unflustered, and I’m not certain that they have active sweat glands. I do plenty of laughing, and my voice carries, shifting attention in the subway, in the hotel elevator, and on the street in ways that I couldn’t read. I felt that people moved away from me. One woman, when leaving her hotel room across the hall from mine, hid from me so that she did not have to take the elevator with me. She started when she saw me, feigned returning to her room, stopped at the door and then continued away from the elevator, ducking away at the bend at the end of the hall. I saw her peeking from around the corner.
And yet, I wasn’t sure to what, exactly, about me she was reacting. I was astonished and hurt and confused, but I didn’t know how to categorize and process my emotions. Was my hotel neighbor’s reaction to me only a matter of my foreignness? Was it because I had smiled at her when we faced one another, initially? Maybe my smile was creepy. I just didn’t know. More, I didn’t have the ability to read the situation. In the United States, it would have been easy enough. Clearly she would have been a racist, right? Here, 12 to 15 hours of time difference away from my support network and those people I had been raised to read, challenge and question, I knew so little about cultural fictions and fears.
Apart from what I understood as the run-of-the-mill “can I get a picture” requests in the tourist laden areas, most of which I received when with someone else rather than alone, I very quickly understood my body—my almost-40 year old, 5’5”, size 16-18, pants-wearing, loud, short and grey haired, brown-but-not-black-Black-woman-body—was unlike anything I would see during my time there. There were a-plenty of brown folk, despite the parasols up at every turn and the whitening agents in almost every beauty product in Watsons. I saw shorter, heavier women, but not quite as heavy as me. Shopping for clothes was nearly impossible. I bought scarves. There were some grey hairs peeking along scalps, waiting for their next dose of permanent black. There was a cute boy-cut on a youthful and bouncy girl of 16 every now and again. But my package? This was, for the first time, a place where I could not find an example of me, anywhere.
Two other amazing women scholars shared with me their understandings of beauty and color in their home country—revealing ancient categories of class and status, as well as particular foreignness (read: African as black) bound to the highly-desired and uniquely Chinese white feminine aesthetic. I understood from each of them that there is a long history of whiteness=beauty in China. While this was not shocking to me, as I am quite used to that particular equation, they explained to me that the initial connections between class status and color came from the basic fact that if one toiled in the sun, one became brown. They also, in these separate conversations, revealed that white skin was historically a standard for women and men.
Also, and to fuel my concerns about global racism, each of my friends let me know that modern Chinese also equate darkness, and particularly blackness, with Africa. One went on to explain that through the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, translated by Lin Shu, 林纾, in 1901 as 黑奴吁天录 and revered as an anti-colonialist text, also influenced the equation of slavery, black skin and, obviously, a truly undesired social standing. So, while the vocabulary of race does not exist in China the way that it does in the United States (and many other parts of the world), the association between “African/black/brown is bad” and “European/white is good” has made its way through one of China’s first foreign translations and an anti-abolitionist novel. I would suggest that this might put a dent in the arguments concerning Stowe’s novel and primarily a positive influence.
It was important for me to reflect on the mirrors I saw throughout the city. While certainly the hiding woman, for instance, was a particularly obtuse example—in truth, my inability to read my situation in multiple ways leaves me with only conjecture about the reactions I received. Instead, I understand that I experienced, particularly in the first week, my own concerns, discomforts, and fears about the trip, about my body, and about the gender normativity that makes me uncomfortable in any city. And, in truth, I think this would not have been as much of a challenge if had I been able to eat and read and ask questions. This journey led me to a place where I was alone and without the basic physical and psychological tools through which I usually function.
I am not the type of (new) traveler who expects any culture to mirror my own. Yet, when first arriving in Beijing I found the city layout easy to follow and familiar, albeit larger than that of any other city in which I’d ever been. Subways, taxis, and my feet initially transported me to various parts of the Haidian district, where I was staying—the host of the Summer Palace and Peking University, some of the loveliest places in the city. It took me a couple of days to find those beautiful, green areas. Instead, I was immediately confronted with many-laned blacktopped thoroughfares, multitudes of street vendors, and rushes of people, cars, buses, bikes, and mopeds from every direction. It took me a bit before I understood the rhythm of this area—populated by a cross-section of students, working adults, and a tiny sprinkling of children. Everyone was so busy—on their way to some important business. Bikes piled with Styrofoam, perhaps collected from the many boxes of electronics for sale and lined up on sidewalks, created an uncomfortable image of men dwarfed by the impossible mountains of material they hauled. I had to remind myself of their cargoes’ weights. Businesses of all sorts lined the first (and sometimes second) floors of most buildings I saw. The sky was grey brown, and the sun a bright spot behind so much cloud and pollution that I could look at it directly without much of a squint. And I could read no sign.
On my first day, jet lagged and feeling quite alone in a city of 26 million people, I came in from my first walk around the neighborhood, a failed attempt to locate some food without meat, meat broth, or meat garnish, to find the person would be the single consistent smiling face at my hotel. I read in my Lonely Planet that there was a variety of Buddhist restaurants in the city. What I did not understand was that those places exist as a small constellation diagonally across town from my hotel and no less than an hour via subway. Blurry-eyed and illiterate, I thought it best to first stay close to my newly adopted hotel home. Between my Mandarin/English dictionary, my flailing arms, and, finally, some pencil on paper, my new front desk friend understood that I had a particular diet in mind, albeit her eyes registered questions that she never posed.
With confidence in her ability to help me, she came from around the desk and took me by the hand, guiding me to the upstairs restaurant where she sat me down at an empty table. She handed me the menu. She found the pages from which I could order. She related my order to the waitress, and then handed off the money. Returning with a receipt, she told me to sit still until my order came. I had been rendered a child. Without language or even the means to effectively use the tools I’d prepared—I bastardized the pronunciations of 佛 教 徒, Fójiàotú, or “Buddhist,” and 素 食 者, sùshízhĕ, “vegetarian,” such that they were completely unidentifiable. When pointing out these safe words in my dictionary, I discovered that they did not hold the signification that could save me from pork flakes. I could not fend for myself and so her kindness was a sharp stick stabbing while simultaneously saving me. Throughout my stay I would smile with gratitude whenever I would run into her. I appreciated her care and willingness to help, more than my first Beijing meal, delicious as it was: eggplant in black bean sauce and 米 饭, mĭfàn (I actually got that one, as cooked rice came with virtually every meal ate and required less tonal prowess).
For the next month, I listened to conversations calling for a World Literature discipline with a de-centered West. The Institute of World Literature (IWL) hosted by Peking University exposed me to Dr. Zhang Longxi, who found in literature his anchor to the world during China’s cultural revolution. His passion for the written word, and particularly Classical Greek myth and Shakespeare’s verse, filled our seminar room as he explained his own love of that which is canonical but without being anchored to “the canon” as ideology. He reminded me that I came to graduate school because of my love of the written word, the process of understanding myself and others via this medium and the discussions surrounding works of literature. Prof. Zhang reminded me that before the work of papers and teaching and agendas set by others is the work on and with the self and that which one loves.
Dr. David Damrosch, for whom we can forever be grateful for IWL, modeled and interrogated with us the issues surrounding influence and translation—subjects over which, in this English-speaking and taught program held in China, we, institute participants, self-consciously debated, deconstructed, and struggled during dinner and drinks and as an extension of Prof. Damrosch’s classroom. Certainly, our discussions were fruitful for we were not only a variety of faculty and students from around the world, but our foreign ranks lived these very complications throughout our daily Beijing lives.
Prof. Damrosch encourage us to express and work together to better understand our discomfort with the Western-normativity plaguing our profession, and particularly those spaces where European and American literatures othered those works outside of particular geographies. Dr. Zhang reminded our class that the oldest European works were written during times of recent Chinese history. They each challenged us to reconsider our understanding of world histories and then the literatures born from various cultural spaces and times. They asked us to reassess the spaces in which we inhabited, not just on subways and sidewalks, but in this critical literary world. In essence, they asked us to confront our illiteracy, discomfort, and our own sense of foreignness within a place we assumed familiar.
And yet, it was in the classroom that I, again, found the solid earth from which my first days in Beijing had distanced me. I sought refuge in these spaces I knew well: where the alphabet was, again, easy, and when the conversation tempted my participation out of sheer familiarity and my own investment in the subject-matter. Prof. Zhang’s love of literature reminded me why I chose this path of literary study, and more specifically my trip to Beijing. Dr. Damrosch foregrounded the complications in our intentions and production, and, more importantly, in the works that enabled our explorations. I found the classroom my other new home, if you will, separated from my hotel room by space that I wanted to know but refused my complete interaction. I shuttled back and forth between my two sites of safety, my lack of language having squelched my sense of adventure. To be clear, it wasn’t the absence of English that I lamented while trying to get my bearings in Beijing, but rather the tools and encouragement to more successfully function within its space.
While there were many helpful people along my journey, certainly I became perfectly comfortable asking anyone for help; more often I was treated as a pest worthy of little attention. My attempts to pronounce, and learn, any Mandarin was mostly met with looks of disgust and the refusal to correct my mistakes. (Yes, yes, I get it… my dumb gullet is unable to reach the many tones—but I mean not even an attempt to teach.) And, even though I am better at pantomime than ever, my struggles with communication were compounded by the alienation I felt by simply being in Beijing.
Besides, the nourishment I so desperately needed found me, and I found it, through the community of people with whom I built relationships. One dear, and I suspect life-time friend, enthusiastically acted as the official dish taster, warning me of any potentially fleshy surprises. Thus, she helped me learn which particular dishes were consistently, or at least more likely, veggie-friendly. In restaurants and stores, I found familiar faces. I traveled to other parts of the country and experienced small town, rural and large city with blue sky, curiosity that did not include objectification and genuine friendliness. During my last week, I happened upon an warm and inviting Tibetan restaurant where people gathered to do work, socialize, eat amazing food and listen to soothing music that drowned out the honking and shouts from the streets. I visited temples where tourists milled about and took pictures of Buddhists who, seamlessly and without distraction, began and completed their religious practices despite the tourists taking pictures of them—concentration despite potential distraction.
I found in the capital city, that I initially thought had rejected me, a new sense of the recognizable. Many of my fellow IWL participants banned together, a sampling from a variety of countries and cultures, to share our daily stories, travel together and help one another find our own places and spaces and new familiars. My body and mind built a real craving for the unique flavors of numbing spice and chili pepper which I ate in frighteningly large quantities—so much so, that within days of returning to the States, I created my own dish of pressed tofu and homemade (by me) chili oil. I supplemented my weak Mandarin vocabulary in a variety of ways, including the benevolent efforts of my Chinese IWL colleagues, more artful use of my language dictionary and, really, confidence. And, really, I do love my scarves, and I managed to leave with also a linen shirt that not only fits but is quite flattering. Simply, I found in Beijing not a earth-shattering, overly-profound, supremely-offensive and oppressive set of experiences and circumstances. In Beijing, I found what did and didn’t fit.
Nicole A. Spigner is a Ph.D. student in Vanderbilt University’s English program. She received her M.A. and B.A. in English from University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the intersections of 19th Century African American and Caribbean literature and classical Greek and Roman texts, depictions of conjure women in 19th and 20th Century African American and Caribbean Literature, as well as black feminist theory, New World syncretic religions, Vedic philosophy and African Diasporic folklore.