The Great Wall and Being Foreign in China

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Tourists at the Great Wall of ChinaWith my backpack in my lap and the air conditioning angled just perfectly at my face, I enjoyed an hour long ride to the Great Wall. When we arrived, students clambered out of the bus into the wet air. It was one of those days where the humidity felt like a second layer of sweat, leaving a nice, sticky coating on my skin. Like most days, you couldn’t see the sky and that day was no exception. The pollution creates an overcast day and if you look into the distance, you can see it creeping up around the buildings like fog.

The Great Wall, although steep and containing many steps, does not compare to the flights of stairs it takes just to reach the Wall. About 18 flights in (my friend’s watch calculated steps), there was a vending station, surrounded by breathless people. Here the water was twice the normal price. At 52 flights, according to the watch, we had reached the wall.

If you were brave enough to peek at the water prices, they rocketed to four times the regular price. This time, the vending stations offered energetic music, as if to encourage the sweat-covered tourists to migrate to the true attraction. The hazy mountains and fog-covered trees contrasted sharply with the red-brown bricks of the Wall. I felt very secure in the massive pathway, despite the cliffs on either side. Every few meters, the wall featured little windows, revealing endless mist and a chance at a little breeze.

Craning my neck to look at the the uphill climb was just as daunting as the journey back was satisfyingly quick. My body sighed in relief as the buses came into view, remembering the cool air it provided on the way there. As I lazily observed the scenery out the window, I overheard an Italian student in front of me excitedly showing his neighbor a video.

There he was, on a Chinese TV show, walking on a treadmill. While we were all equally confused about the content of the show, he didn’t seem to mind because he received 400 kuai for participating. Later, as I discussed his job with my friend, her Portuguese roommate chimed in. She had previously been invited to act as an extra on a movie set with famous Chinese actors (who were unbeknownst to her). She said all she had to do was dance for an hour or two and she got 500 kuai. I’m fascinated by the job market that exists solely because of white foreigners in China.

Many people believe the existence of Westerners in companies is a sign of success, that they have reached such a large audience that foreigners regularly contribute to their businesses. Not only does the demand for white foreigners place them in a uniquely privileged position in terms of job availability, but it only seems to perpetuate the awe of whiteness. Bars and clubs have lists exclusively meant for foreigners, offering free entrance and drinks. High class parties are marked by the number of blond women and bearded men who grace the gatherings with their presence. The intrigue of foreignness is not only obvious in its capitalization, but in daily life. Running errands is accompanied by long stares and the subway usually features whisperings of curiosity. Tourist locations are especially prone to excited Chinese natives asking to take selfies. While visiting the summer palace, a group of girls approached me through giggles, asking to take pictures with them.

Being in China while looking foreign is dangerous. There is a sense of inflated ego and entitlement, easily understood and encouraged, with all the special treatment. Many people will go out at night, not willing to spend a single dime on nightlife. If they are expected to pay, they take their foreignness elsewhere. After all, if you can get free drinks somewhere else, why would you pay? It all boils down to what foreigners believe they deserve.

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Davidson College

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