It’s Just Different…


No turning back now! On the way to China after my layover in Zurich.

One of the reasons I chose to study abroad in China, apart from my wishes to improve my Chinese, was that I wanted to throw myself into an entirely different culture.  I use the phrase “throw myself into” because, for the most part, I am perfectly content remaining within my comfort zone.  While I can value and appreciate things that lay outside of that realm, I definitely find it easier to stick with what I know. I am able to push myself out of that zone, but I often have to make a conscious effort to do so.

This all said, by booking my plane ticket to China, and by placing the final deposit down for the Summer Abroad Program (no turning back now!), I was definitely setting myself up for a summer well outside of my comfort zone.  Having spent every one of my summers on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, studying in Beijing would be a bit of a change (to put it lightly).

Anyways, as I expected, China is nothing like the United States- and perhaps even more different than I had even imagined.  I admit to knowing a very minimal amount about Chinese culture before I got here, so I was never able to put together a clear picture as to what I thought China would be like anyways.

The first week or so that I was here, I was in absolute awe at how amazingly different everything was.  The style of clothing was different, the food was different, the way in which people treated me (or looked at me) was different, even the bathrooms were different.  After having been here in Beijing about a month, I find myself having to remind myself of this pretty often- that the culture is just that: different.  It is not wrong or right, nor better or worse.

This was taken during our bike tour of Tsinghua’s campus. While this is definitely an exaggeration of women’s clothing, I still think it speaks to a conservative and girly clothes style. This woman, however, did have more of a diva like attitude than most.


I need to remind myself of this especially when it comes to how women carry themselves in China, and how they are viewed in China (according to my perception of course).  This was always something that I had noticed, but after our class last week where we discussed the chapter on “Gender in modern Chinese Culture” it has become far more apparent to me.  Of course, the connotations and perceptions masculine and feminine carry with them vary from culture to culture.  The United States’ criteria for “feminine”, in my opinion, are far less cookie cutter than what I have gathered the criteria to be in China.  From what I have seen in Beijing, I see one type of woman portrayed (there’s one size fits all underwear for crying out loud).  I found this surprising because I guess that I assumed with a big city would come a wide range of diversity.

Women here all seem to conform to very strict sense of dress, for example: a loose fitting blouse, a free flowing skirt, a modest dress, high platform shoes, etc. Of course, it is difficult to generalize, however I do notice that dress is more conservative in China (especially for the women). It is rare to find a Chinese woman wearing something tight, or even remotely revealing.  Their clothes are most commonly loose fitting with a high neckline, adorned with frilly nonsense, and very light colors.   It’s all very “girly girl” to me, something that I’m not used to being surrounded by in the United States at all.  Three experiences/ encounters stand out to me regarding women in China as I write this blog:

1.) Occasionally I like waking up early so that I can exercise and run around the track.  This has proved to be more than interesting…   First of all, an aside- what are these people wearing (both guys and girls)?  Collared shirts? Khaki pants? Jeans?  WHY on Earth would anyone wear this while exercising in the million degree weather in 100 percent humidity in the smog you cannot breathe in?  People on the track stare at me of course, as I am practically naked in comparison to the other people running around the track.  There I am- running in my neon shorts, and William and Mary piney, as they wear clothes that well, aren’t so exercise friendly (to put it nicely). I don’t doubt they think I look strange, or that they wonder why I am wearing the things I am wearing (I’m American, duh!) but oh believe me when I say I think they look weird too.  Anyways, the women that are exercising around the track seem very careful not to exceed a speed that could god forbid build any form of muscle. I most commonly see the woman  wearing a pink collared shirt, and “exercise pants.”  After I finish running, I usually like to stretch and do some ab workouts and pushups (especially because I do not go to any gym while I am here).  I won’t soon forget the response I got by some middle aged men when they saw me doing pushups on the turf. As they were jogging by and saw me, they stopped, stared, and then proceeded to whip out their phones and take pictures.  I couldn’t ignore this- so I let them know I was aware of what they were doing by saying 你好。They didn’t seem embarrassed at all that I “caught” them, and they responded “wow, you are a girl!” (in English)They routed me on as I finished my push ups… so so bizarre.  At the time, I thought this was funny and beyond entertaining and bizarre, but later I thought about what implications that this comment has.  Women here, judging merely by observation, look completely helpless (and don’t seem to mind).  I get the impression that Chinese woman have no desire to feel strong, or even look it.  Building off of this point, the next time I went to run around the track, I saw this girl sit down on the turf with her tiny little dog in her long pink maxi dress with heels, as she watched her boyfriend exercise. What…

2.) About a week ago, when I walked into the big cafeteria with some of the girls, we all immediately noticed an Asian wearing sneakers and bright athletic clothes.  While she was Asian, she stood out so much within the context of her surroundings.  This made me realize something somewhat pretty obvious.  I stand out in China for reasons far more than the color of my skin, and my blonde hair.  I do not at all dress like your average Chinese girl on campus.  Seeing this girl in her sneakers and sporty clothes was really ironic as we had just talked about at lunch how no one ever walks around in athletic clothes here (as I sat there in my nikes and mesh shorts).  At William and Mary, it is very common for students to come and go into class wearing sneakers and gym shorts, but here that’s literally never the case.  As the girls exclaimed like “see Aly look!  Some people do wear that” I already had my doubts and responded “I bet you she is American”.  As we walked outside, we saw that she met up with her group of Americans, as they all spoke english.  I couldn’t help but say- told ya so.  Also, she had too much muscle on her- had to be American!

3.) This third experience was definitely the most uncomfortable one.  My first meeting with my language partner, we got off track for the last half hour, and we were speaking English.  I was commenting on how different the restaurant service in China is versus the United States, and how I think tipping servers may be a huge reason for that.  He agreed, but mentioned that there is one area of China (I forget where) in which servers do properly wait on you, and refill your water when it is empty etc.  He continued on to explain a certain experience that he found particularly pleasant.  “One time, I went to this nice restaurant with my wife while we were there.  She was pregnant, so they adorned the table with tons of pictures of baby boys.  Because everyone wants a boy in China.”  While I know historically, this had been the case, it was uncomfortable to hear him put that to words.  He continued talking about his experience and then concluded with “but, unfortunately, we had a girl.”  Who says that, even if you do think it, especially TO A GIRL?!