It happens pretty frequently. I’ll be in a taxi (or restaurant, market, bus…) and the driver (or owner, vendor, fellow passenger…) will ask me where I’m from. I’ll answer, and, if they’re the curious type, they will launch into questions about my home country. Much of the time, it’s “Basic Geography and Culture for $100, Alex.” Are there mountains in the U.S.? Is it true that people are asleep there right now, even though it’s daytime here? California is the state next to Australia, right? Does it snow? Does everyone eat bread three meals a day? With a fork and knife?
Sometimes, the questions are a little deeper. Are cars really cheap in America? How much is the government fine for having more than one child? Do all American women wear bright red lipstick?
And sometimes, the questions get more…weighted.
Why are Americans so fat? Why does your country like to start wars all over the place? How come Americans abandon their own aging parents?
In these moments, I realize that I am probably the only American this person will ever talk to. In some of the areas we’ve lived in, I might be the only foreigner they will ever see, period. In other, bigger places, they might encounter more foreigners, but I’m the first who speaks enough Mandarin to actually have a conversation with them.
It’s true that more and more Chinese are moving into urban areas, and that there are plenty of expats to be had in the bigger cities. But, expats tend to congregate in China’s “first tier” cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Chinese living in smaller cities or inland provinces are less likely to run into any outsiders.
And then there are those who aren’t in cities at all. Although 54% of the current Chinese population lives in urban areas, that still leaves 46% of the population – roughly 635 million Chinese citizens – living in rural areas, where encounters with foreigners are few and far between.
Sometimes our travels have taken us to those very rural places. I can recall being in one small village near the border with Vietnam. We asked if any foreigners had ever come through before. After some group discussion, they turned to us with the answer: “Yes. Ho Chi Minh came through here in the 60s teaching revolutionary theory.” It was pretty amazing to think my husband and I were the first Westerners to set foot in that village. I suppose in another few decades, they’ll be answering that question, “Yes. Ho Chi Minh and two white people have been here.”
Even when I’m not in a backwater village, I’ve never lived in a first tier city and have rarely even visited those places. That means it’s all the more likely that I’m the first Westerner, or even the first foreigner of any origin, that folks have ever seen.
So, when I stand next to them on a bus, or stand in line behind them to check out at the store, it’s their chance. They’ve heard stuff in the news, or have some kind of warped understanding of my home culture thanks to movies and TV shows. Now they can verify things face-to-face with a real American.
Suddenly, I am a one-woman embassy, representing my country to this curious Chinese citizen. And so, I do my best, sometimes faltering through bad Mandarin (how do you say “electoral college” again?), or not quite understanding the assumptions behind a question. I really don’t know how well I do, as I cling to the seat in front of me as our bus bumps along, or fumble for for correct change, all while trying to frame my country and culture in terms they’ll better understand.
As China and the U.S. change in their relationship, I can’t help but feel that being a one-woman ambassador is an important role. It’s a small way to build a bridge between our countries. I suppose it’s a role that expats play no matter what their host and passport countries may be. Who knows if I am making much of a difference, but I still try. I’m doing my small part, being America to China, one person at a time.
How are you an ambassador sent out from your home country to your host country? Do you have a story to share?