As I checked my watch I realized I was going to be late. It’s already 6:55, and I was supposed to be at Zhongtiaolu station at 7:00. I counted six more stops until I reached my destination. Once again my friend Christina’s English abilities had left something lost in translation. When she had texted me an invitation to dinner at the hotel she worked at I had assumed the stop “on line 1, close, 3QU” would have been a 20 minute ride, but after 40 minutes of traveling it dawned on me once again that the Chinese idea of “very close” is much the same as the Chinese idea of “ten minutes”––i.e. closer to an hour.
Christina’s English abilities, though better than most, is still colored by a thick––sometimes indecipherable–– Chinese accent. When I arrived at the station I heard her even before I saw her, yelling quite loudly that something “So sucks!” I see her and Cici standing at a nearby exit speaking to each other, and quickly make my way toward them unsurprised to hear them speaking English with one another. Since I first met them, both have seemed to fall into a new category of Chinese youth who I perceive to be obsessed with western culture. They speak English constantly, wear exclusively popular western brands, love American pop music, and have found a niche in the local expat circle as everyone’s favorite “Chinese friends.” At first glance they seem every bit the contrast of what one would consider a traditional Chinese girl: outgoing, social, bubbly, etc.
I met Christina my first week in China at a language exchange, and grew to become friends with her in the context of the local Nanjing expat social scene. She is a small girl, barely five foot, and very pretty with long hair and an always smiling face. What first struck me about her is how loud and boisterous she is, always shouting her unique mixture of pidgin English and Chinese, never speaking it. I originally thought her to be much different from the shy, reserved Chinese girls I had been meeting, and this observation proved to be true the more I got to know her. Cici too, is very untraditional. Tall and elegant––Cici is a model-turned-English teacher. Her English is much clearer than Christina’s, and as she greats me I notice an affected British accent–– something she has been trying out since recently starting to date an Expat from the UK.
We walk toward the hotel chatting about what we all did during the day––working sleeping seems to be the consensus. The hotel is very nice, probably a four star hotel by American standards, and Christina greats her colleagues as we go inside. She explains she has tickets to the Hotel’s buffet that some of her clients had given her as tokens of their appreciation. Christina works in what she explains as “Foreign Guest Relations,” and I quickly realize that even though her English is middling at best no one else at the hotel seems to speak anything. The buffet is large and I grab a plate and a table. I watch awed as each girl brings over at least three or four different plates of food while happily complaining how fat they are going to get. If I close my eyes it sounds just like my college friends back home––had the table been lined with Pinkberry Cups and Johnny Rockets burger wrappers instead of noodles and duck it could have practically been the same thing.
I think about it for a second and realize that in the few months I have known them, I have only seen them with other foreigners and maybe one or two other Chinese friends. Western friends dominate their social circles, and this once again makes me think of how different they are from the other Chinese girls I have met. My roommate for example is a quiet, reserved girl who upon moving in with me told me I was the first foreign girl she had ever become good friends with. While Christina and Cici can often be found after work going to restaurants, bars, and clubs with expats–– my roommate and her friends who are all around the same age are usually exclusively with other Chinese students spending their nights playing games and watching TV. Both types of girls are hard workers, concerned about their futures and filled with a sense of wanting to make their families proud, but I see in Cici and Christina a desire to become more connected with the Western world. I feel that they think to be western is to be modern, and are starting to cast off some of the social morays they had been raised with here in China––becoming more and more like me and other typical American 20 somethings and less and less like my roommate and the average 20 something Chinese woman.
As we finish our meal, I reach for my coat and Cici comments on how beautiful she thinks it is asking what brand it is. I laugh and tell her it’s just something I bought at target, not a brand name, but she still insists she likes it. She then goes on to tell me how beautiful she thinks I am and hugs me. I’m always surprised by how affectionate she and summer both are, constantly hugging me and kissing me on the cheek, always wanting to hold hands. It seems a bit absurd to me that someone who once modeled in Shanghai could find me at all glamorous, and I can’t help but thinking perhaps part of my allure is the same as the knock-off Michael Korrs bag on her arm––I’m foreign and therefore different. As we try to catch a cab I tell them once again how much I love them, and I really do. They are two of the most interesting people I have ever met, and have been incredible friends. To me this night was just another example of what makes them so very interesting and relatable. Like me they are just normal 20 somethings trying to define themselves, and that is what I think made our relationship work so well. We are both attracted to each other because we are different and exotic to each other, yet at the same time facing the same struggles of personal identity and the complexities of making our way in the world.