Print Four months into my life as a newly minted Beijing resident, I made the following discoveries: Public loos are great if you prefer to do your business with no doors and several squatting Chinese grannies staring straight at you. With pork dumplings, there is no limit. For those interested, yes, I did carefully delete his number approximately a second after we said goodbye.
In transit haven I live in Beijing, a city of over 20 million people, with a history that dates back three millennia. Its winding hutongs, with homes that were built centuries ago, also house designer boutiques and craft breweries. English-language schools — not all of them legitimate — continue to mushroom, and while the expat population is primarily formed by English teachers, it also includes IT professionals, entrepreneurs, and guidance counsellors who prep harried Chinese children and their still-more-harried parents for universities abroad.
Most are from European countries and the United States and predominantly white. Beijing is a transitionary city for expats — few stay back forever. There are the grizzled veterans of course, but three to five years is the cut-off point for most.
If you stay on, you are in it for the long haul. But thing is, you will almost always head back. The pollution aside, Beijing still has a culture which remains alien for years after you have experienced it. Add to this the tiny difficulties of navigating daily life — and the idea of permanently settling in Beijing seem daunting. It is the same for Chinese women. Everyone is either leaving, already has a partner from back home or just wants to mess around, she said, which makes long-term dating a difficult prospect.
To see and be seen I am 27, and until November, called Mumbai home. It is weird to be exotic for the first time in my life. I am often the only brown face in a bar, a supermarket, the subway, or the street. Even more frequently, I am the only brown female face. Since I moved here, I have seen exactly one other woman who vaguely resembled me, and she turned out to be Middle Eastern. The language barrier I am learning Mandarin but I have not yet achieved fluency means that my dating pool is usually limited to American or British expatriates.
We find common ground as outsiders — we rave about an episode of Bojack Horseman and complain about how Tinder keeps breaking down on us because it needs VPN or virtual private network. It is a bubble, yes, and, often, a comforting one. Like all comforting bubbles, it is one which you need to constantly remind yourself to step out of, or you will never get to know your new home.
As I discovered, it is also a bubble which soon enough, bursts on its own. I was way too tired and a little bit tipsy, to answer that one seriously. From the mild glee that crossed his face, I knew exactly what he was thinking. In dude-speak, I was a bad Indian girl. But in Beijing, it is odd and frustrating to have to tell people: I had assumed that globalisation meant I would not need to keep explaining my actions.
But several expats here are from rural states deep in the American heartland, and I am often the first Indian they have met. While Jason is not representative of all Americans, there are a lot of men like him going about. They know little about my life in urban India, and to be fair, I know little about where and how they grew up. I listen to a Southern drawl and there is a part of my brain which jumps to quick judgement, just as they might be do when they hear my accent.
Being an English teacher is considered something that requires little skill and is a guaranteed job, as long as you are white. Hooking up in Beijing Dating platforms offer a glimpse into this world. There is a homegrown version of Tinder called Tantan, like China has for virtually every global social media platform it has banned.
It looks the same, with drastically different results. The conversation was constant, if a little stilted. They would discuss the usual: It all came to a crashing halt when Kevin asked Sara if she would like to meet him sometime.
Almost immediately, Sara stopped replying. This particular instance was exactly like the last three — Kevin never heard from any of them again. Tantan has the notorious reputation of being an app which Chinese girls use only to talk to expats to practise their English.
It was also my own port-of-call when I first visited Beijing, on a month-long trip across China, last April. I swigged Yanjing beer on the pavement at 3 am with an English teacher from the UK, tried fried snake at Wangfujing with a Texan IT guy, dug into bowls of lamian at a tiny noodle shop with a Chinese graphic designer. It had been a gloriously blurry fortnight — one that had let me have all of the fun without having to deal with the mess.
There is a part of me that takes unconscious pleasure in being exotic for the first time. I languidly revel in my Otherness. But there is also a part of me which cringes intensely at being fetishised because of my race. My experience of China is tied to the colour of my skin.
I have had people staring at me on the subway it can get tiring but it is never threatening. I have had Chinese teenage girls call me pretty and take a selfie with me, grannies telling me my eyes are piaoliang or beautiful.
She spoke fluent Chinese and retaliated the first couple of times, but then, she said, it became easier to ignore. When I think of her, I check my privilege. White is fine, maybe even a status symbol. Black or brown is not. The Sanlitun stabbing incident, where a Chinese woman and her French husband were attacked by a Chinese man with a sword in broad daylight allegedly because of aforementioned nationalist rage is still discussed in expat circles.
Back home in Mumbai, I went all my life fitting in. Average had been a blessing. Average build, average height, average colour of skin — I never knew what it meant to stick out like a sore thumb.
The feeling of scrutiny I anticipate each time I go home with a guy, is different from the usual body-image anxiety that my women friends and I are so familiar with. In Beijing, I compare myself to all the races of women they have probably slept with.
I feel representative of my race. It is terrifying, really, the way these skin-deep feelings of inadequacy, these society-and-media shaped notions of desirability, sneak up on you.
I tell myself I am hairier, I am smellier, I am bumpier and lumpier. Sometimes before a date, I find myself wishing I could climb into new skin.
I wish I had only the barest hint of down on my upper lip like my blonde friends, I wish I were as effortlessly fragrant as my Chinese roommate. There are times when I tell myself this is all largely in my own head, that maybe, just maybe, the boys I am with find me beautiful too. I wish I could blend in. But then I also want to stand out.
I want to negotiate the two. I want to be independent of the cultural baggage that comes with my body, at least in that most intimate of spaces. Or at least, have it be part of me, instead of the other way around. I want to be liked. We welcome your comments at letters scroll.