Women’s Day: A Cultural Conflict

Last Thursday I received a text from Lynn:

“(101) 7:55-8:35, (109) 9:40-10:20, (103) 10:30-11:10. The time for class has been changed tomorrow because of the celebrating activity.”

“Celebrating activity?” I replied.

“Will you meet us at the front gate of the school after class about 11:15 so that we can go to the buffet together.”

“There’s a buffet?”, I responded. “What for?”

“For celebrating the women’s day 3.8”.

Women’s Day? There’s a Women’s Day? Why don’t we celebrate that in America? (We should.)

Apparently the school had rearranged all of Friday’s classes so that the female teachers could all go to a buffet together. I have no idea where my school is getting the money for all these buffets, banquets and special gifts, but I’m not complaining.

After a tiring morning of teaching, I headed to the gate for the banquet. We drove for about 15 minutes to a fancy hotel in the “New City”. The banquet wasn’t quite as good as the previous one for the English teachers, but the sashimi was amazing.. and ice cream is always good.

I sat at a table with all the young female English teachers who I normally hang out with: Lynn, Lora, Catherine and Vivian. As much as the group of us has become friends, I’ve been a bit bothered by the amount that they speak Ningbohua (Ningbo’s dialect) in front of me. Whenever Catherine is in the mix, they at least make an effort to speak in Mandarin since she is from Northern China, but they still speak so quickly it is impossible for me to keep up with their accent. I either have to try to squeeze my way into the conversation, or sit there like I don’t exist. Every week these teachers will sit next to me during lunch and then completely ignore me. I’ve also completely stopped getting invites to hang out or have dinner. It’s starting to feel like my novelty has worn off and I’m now an inconvenience.

I’ve put up with these feeling for a while now, but at Women’s Day I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After lunch another teacher came to join our table who doesn’t speak English (very well). The conversation switched to Chinese, as expected, and I sat there in my own thoughts sipping on my coffee. Eventually they started playing a game on their phones. Through watching and asking questions I eventually discerned that every person received a text with a word. Everyone had the same word except one person, whose word was slightly different. None of the players knew whose word was different except the “judge” who acted as moderator. In turn, each player would have to say a hint to their word in an attempt to figure out whose word was different. The aim is to work together to beat the “judge” by discovering who has the different word.

After a solid half hour of watching the game, I realized that a lot of the words were really easy, like primary school vs. high school or Hunan province vs. Henan province, so I asked if I could play.

“Oh, but you can’t read Chinese characters!”, exclaimed Lora.

“I think I understand enough to play” I countered.

“Do you know these??”, she showed me the characters on her phone.

“No.. I guess not”, I admitted, looking at the obscure characters.

After about 45 minutes of complete boredom, I realized that I could easily ask the “judge” to translate any characters I didn’t know. I know enough about things like Hunan vs. Henan to play the game, and I could even say the clues in Chinese. All I would need was the judge to translate characters I didn’t know, and the other teachers to help translate clues I didn’t understand.

When I brought the idea up to the teachers they basically laughed in my face.

“But this one is a famous Chinese author. You wouldn’t know!”, Lora explained.

“She must be so bored”, the new teacher laughed in Chinese.

I was furious. I made it pretty obvious that I wanted to be included and I was basically laughed at. It would have been so incredibly easy to include me; it would have taken a little bit of translation and maybe skipping some of the categories I didn’t know. I don’t know famous Chinese authors? Let’s just skip that one and move onto the next one. But instead, I was laughed at and excluded for almost an hour. Women’s day? More like lunch with a bunch of catty, insensitive teenagers. The whole experience was just so incredibly rude, I couldn’t even wrap my head around it.

When I knew they either weren’t getting the hint or didn’t care, I finally asked:

“When are you guys heading back to school?”

“Oh, not until 2! We have another 45 minutes.”

Of course. They wanted to play up the lunch break as long as possible so they wouldn’t have to go back to work.

“Well.. do you know if there’s a bus I can take home?”

“No. No bus.”, they kept laughing and playing, ignoring me and my obvious frustration with their rudeness.

I couldn’t take it anymore. “Okay, well I’m not going to sit here for another 45 minutes while you play this game without me, so I’m going to take a cab home”, I said in an ice-cold voice.

I grabbed my purse but hesitated in my seat for a second, waiting for them to feel bad and offer to include me.

“Okay, see you later.”

Really?! I threw my purse over my shoulder and stormed out of the room. I was so angry I started crying in the elevator. How could they treat me like that? They know how hard it is for me to live here in the middle of nowhere. I’ve told them about how I expected to live in the city, and that I was upset by how isolated the school is. They know I’m lonely and bored and they don’t care.

The entire cab ride home I just wanted to revel in my anger but unfortunately my cab driver had other plans. He told my I was beautiful probably 18 times, asked me if I had a boyfriend more than once, told me I looked Russian because Russians are beautiful, and then asked me if I wanted a Chinese boyfriend, and told me that if I married a Chinese guy I could live in China forever. Yes, because that’s exactly what I want right now.

The more I thought about that moment at the banquet, the angrier I was. A part of me wants to hope that it’s a cultural thing, but I have other Chinese friends who have never treated me like that. The thing that really frustrates me is that I know how easy it is to include international friends. Senior year I was an exchange student orientation leader, and I became friends with a lot of the exchange students in the process. While a lot of the exchange students’ English was perfect, many of them struggled so it was necessary for me to slow my speaking and use a basic vocabulary. While it was a bit more of an effort to communicate, I never minded because I enjoyed hanging out with the international students and learning about their lives and world views. Sometimes I’d get carried away and speak too quickly, but all it took was a reminder to slow down or a confused expression and I’d rephrase.

The other exchange student orientation leaders and I also used to play a card game called Cards Against Humanity (adult Apples to Apples) with some of the exchange students. It was a game full of pop culture and phrases international students may not know, but we helped explain any cards they didn’t understand and let them re-draw. This way they got to hang out with us and play a really fun game, while learning about American pop culture at the same time. If I could play Cards Against Humanity with students from Italy, Argentina and Egypt, the Chinese teachers could definitely play a simple word game with me.

What frustrates me most is that I actually considered two of the teachers, Lynn and Catherine, to be my friends, and now I’m not so sure. Is my friendship too much of an effort for them? Has the novelty worn off? I understand that they’re married and that most of them have babies, but the least they can do is make an effort to talk to me the few times we hang out. I already feel like a social pariah as it is. I eat almost all of my meals by myself, I watch tv on my computer every night, I do all of my errands by myself.. I do everything by myself. I normally only hang out with people one night per weekend… if that.

One of the main silver linings of living in the middle of nowhere is that it forces you to make Chinese friends and practice Chinese. But whenever I hang out with the teachers at my school they either ignore me or only speak to me in English. How am I supposed to have Chinese friends when they all reject me as an annoyance? How am I supposed to get off the computer when there’s nothing to do and no one to see? Just when I thought I was making a home for myself, I feel more isolated than ever.

It’s been exactly a week and I haven’t talked to any of them except Lora who texted me about work stuff. I feel awkward reaching out to any of them after the way they treated me, and I’m not sure where to go from here. Many of the teachers have helped me out when needed; they helped me set up a bank account, buy train tickets online and order stuff off Taobao, but then treat me like I don’t exist when we’re all in a group. Do I confront them or let it blow over? Do I pretend like it never happened, or proceed with caution? I still haven’t figured it out yet. For now, I just plan on being awkwardly lonely and disappointed… at least I have House of Cards to keep me company.



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

8 comments on “Women’s Day: A Cultural Conflict

  1. It really sucks that this happened :( I get some of this too- I’m the only foreign teacher at my school and literally NONE of the other teachers speak to me unless I try to start a conversation or they have a question about English grammar. When we go to lunch and end up sitting together (usually they try to avoid that by leaving 5 minutes after me), they talk in rapid fire Chinese the entire time and never ever include me in the conversation. I know it’s harder for you too because your school is in the middle of nowhere :( I hope it gets better! And come visit Wuxi whenever you get a chance!

  2. I remember that frustration very well, and it can be really discouraging. Two things to keep in mind are that 1) yes the novelty of your foreignness has worn off, which is both good and bad, and 2) after 6 years I still have to suppress the rage reaction when I feel like people are laughing at me, but the truth is that laughter is more often an expression of embarrassment than mockery.
    That said, it is sad that people here seem to just not make the effort to include others that comes so naturally to you (and me as well). Sorry to hear about that :(

  3. Don’t feel bad. It’s not a culture thing; the whole language thing was just an excuse. Haven’t you seen Mean Girls with Lindsey Lohan? I never actually had those problems in school since I always had my own group of friends, but in the work place, I couldnt control who was in my team. Sometimes I’d encounter a group of women who’d form a 3-4person clique and purposely ice me out in the most passive aggressive way possible. It’s almost worse when there’s no language or culture barrier to use as an excuse. Maybe you were a social butterfly when in school and are used to people loving you, but in the workplace, all sorts of unfair shitty things happen outside of your control. I mean, it sucks when it happens, but chances are you’ll likely encounter those types of people again. Take this as a learning experience on How to Deal with People, and next time you experience something like this, you’ll be prepared psychologically and emotionally. Cheer up, you get to watch House of Cards :)

  4. I don’t know what the situation with your Chinese “friends” is exactly, but from what I understand of the Chinese culture the high school “mean girls” dynamics don’t really exist in China. If the women don’t like you, they will just try to minimize interaction with you; they generally don’t mock you or insult you out of spite. So, try not to take the things your friends say personally and just be friendly and approachable as much as possible. If it is indeed true that they don’t want a friendship with you, then you just have to cut your losses and find friends elsewhere. Don’t confront them about it, because open, direct conflict in such social situations is almost never done in East Asia.

    Usually, foreigners (from Western countries) have very little trouble making friends in China and East Asia more broadly, especially when they have made an effort to learn the local language. If you’re surrounded by unfriendly Chinese people, maybe it’s just bad luck.

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  6. Aw, man, I’m sorry you went through all this…maybe it was just a cultural misunderstanding? Being in a foreign place, and isolated, can be really hard. You’re very courageous for sticking through the whole year!

    • Thanks so much Tara! Hopefully it was a cultural misunderstanding. I’m sure it’s difficult for them to speak English all the time or speak Chinese slowly, and they’re not as used to interacting with foreigners as I am. I’m definitely glad I stuck it out though, it was a great experience overall.

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