Westerners living in China occupy a curious existence. Depending on where you are and in what situation, you are part celebrity, part honored guest, part freak of nature. Not a single waking moment goes by that I’m not reminded of my alien status in China.  From the exultations of “hullo!” wherever I go, to the multiple requests for dinner dates and number exchanges, to the evening news featuring my visit to the Guanxian Pear Garden, one thing is clear, it’s a big deal that I’m here.

There’s an ego-centric side of all of us that loves that sort of attention, but, just the same as it is for real celebrities, it can get a little irksome.  Mostly it’s just small annoyances— I struggle sometimes not to glare at little huddles of juvenile Chinese boy as they point and giggle at me from afar, all with the same little stupid conceited smile. For the most part it’s easy enough to get used to.  But now and then I find myself tangled up in a situation where my identity as a foreigner, as an American, as a white male, as me, is being exploited for the benefit of other people.  Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than a recent experience I had with my friend Tony.

Before I get into what happened between Tony and I, let me start out by saying that Tony is a good guy, a real good guy.  If it weren’t for Tony and a number of other students at Liaocheng University my time in China—especially my first few weeks—might have driven me to the edge of insanity or, worse yet, on a plane back to the States.  That said, of all my Chinese friends Tony is perhaps the most guilty of using my status as a celebrity/laowai to improve his own situation.  For the most part, I don’t mind.  I do my best to operate the way in which Chinese people do, and since Tony has helped me so much I’m usually happy to reciprocate.  Besides, often times it’s a win-win situation in which all that’s required of me is my presence.  Tony has introduced me to many friends who have bought me dinner, and he’s even helped me find a job as an English tutor.

A couple weeks into my semester in China I was walking with Tony on campus when a man on a motorcycle approached us and began talking to Tony.  Mr. Wang, as he likes to be called, has founded and managed a number of private English schools in the Liaocheng area, and has recently undergone a venture to start his first one within the city limits.  English schools in China are about as common as KFC’s, but those that employ and associate with foreigners are always far more profitable.  So when Mr. Wang saw Tony and me walking together he jumped at the opportunity.  Tony, who majored in English in college, was offered the job as manager of the school, because, as Tony put it, he had something that Mr. Wang needed: me.  While I myself will not actually be teaching at the school, Will, my Ghanaian friend at Liaocheng University, will be, and my contacts with other foreigners in Liaocheng is a great asset to the company.  Mr. Wang, by way of Tony, asked Will and I and our friend Serena, to be in a picture for the school.

While I frowned at their obvious perpetration of false advertisement, I agreed to be in the picture as a way to help Tony, and was even able to convince Serena, who is also not teaching at the school, to come out for the picture.  This was an infringement of my own values, and no doubt made me a little uncomfortable, but it required little effort on my part and went a long way in helping Tony’s business venture, (and after all this experience is all about stepping out of my comfort zone).

But then Tony asked me to hand out flyers for the school on the streets of Liaocheng, and that was the point at which I decided to draw the line.  I have discovered that the hardest part of being in China for me is the constant reminder of my alien (pun intended) status.  I do my best to embrace it, but I’m not going to lie, it can be tough not being treated like a normal human being all the time, and coupled with the fact that I would perpetrating the fraud of pretending that I myself was a teacher at the school, it was just too much.  You can treat me like a freak, you can ask me to suspend my own morals for the good of my friends, but I won’t do both at the same time.

My reaction shocked and disappointed Tony, so much so that he appeared at my dorm the next day bearing gifts and offering to take me out to lunch (a common way to mend a relationship gone wrong.)  I tried my best to explain to Tony why I didn’t want to hand out flyers for the school, but it wasn’t something that he could understand.  “In China,” he said, “if you are friends you will do anything to help the other person, even if it means doing something you are not comfortable with.”

This is the point at which Chinese and American cultures clash in the most fundamental of ways.  China is a communal society, where the well-being of the individual has much more to do with the well-being of those around him, whereas American society (Western society in general I suppose) is more about the individual.  Each side of the story has its up and down sides. You could say that Chinese people are more selfless than Americans, while at the same time you could say that Americans have more personal integrity and are unwilling to demean themselves for the betterment of others.  While I value the way in which they look out for each other, I wonder what this does for the self-esteem of an individual.  For my own personal mental health I know that the middle road is the best.  I will agree to do certain things, but when it’s taken too far I have to draw the line.

Read part II here.