Going into a public bathroom here in China has become a harrowing experience. Not because they’re often dirty, or because they smell bad. It’s not even the discomforting lack of soap. Oh no, dear reader. It’s the fellow bathroom patrons that make me feel most unwelcome there.
Despite my hair growing longer, my earrings, and the decidedly female parts of my anatomy, people here STILL can’t tell I’m a woman. I no longer get angry about it–now I just become more and more amazed at how compartmentalized their views of women are. In their eyes, it seems, women must wear pink or foofoo lacy things or tights with booty shorts in the middle of winter (or all of the above–yes, I have seen it with mine own eyes!)
So for a woman to wear a leather coat that’s slightly too big for her, with dark jeans and leather shoes, is just too gender-bending for them to know what to do. Instead of thinking that maybe I’m a foreign woman who likes to dress a little masculine-of-center, they decide that I’m a foreign man who has a hard time reading the restroom sign. Also, they must decide that I’m a retard, because most signs are also in English, or have the universal picture of a woman wearing a very awkward-looking skirt.
Srsly, worst dress ever.
But at least this weekend, it was a little different. Most times, it’s a middle-aged woman who freaks out and scolds me for being in the lady’s room. This time it was a little girl, and her cuteness completely overwhelmed any kind of anger I could have felt for being accused of being a blind idiot foreigner.
The scene: a crowded bathroom in the Forbidden City in Beijing. I was standing in “line” with my Chinese friend (all lines in China look suspiciously like gaggles, and whoever can scurry over to an open bathroom stall first gets it). The stall in front of me opened, and a little girl with her mom started walking out. The little girl was adorable, so I smiled at her a little. When she looked up at me, she turned to her mom in confusion.
Little girl (in Chinese): Mommy, why is there a boy in the girl’s bathroom?
The mom looked at me, and I sighed in frustration as my friend started to laugh.
Me (in English, under my breath): Damn it…
Little girl (in Chinese): Mommy, I didn’t understand that. What did he say?
My Chinese Friend (in Chinese): Don’t worry, she’s a girl. It’s OK for her to be here!
Me (in bad Chinese): Yup I’m a girl.
The mom apologized a little, then walked out with her girl. My friend laughed at me some more, but hey, I can understand kids not quite understanding me. Adults don’t have any excuse other than being stuck in a oppressive regime with limited self-expression.
… Actually, now that I think of it, that’s a pretty good excuse. Maybe I should cut them some more slack. In a place where conformity is so valued, something as simple as me looking like me could be the most diversity these people have seen their whole lives. It truly is amazing how homogenous China is. Nearly everyone is the same race (Han). Students wear uniforms from elementary to high school. People would rather push and shove to get on the tiny, crowded escalator than break away from the crowd and walk up the empty stairs. In general, no one wants to be different.
So next time I get yelled at for being in the wrong bathroom (probably tomorrow,) maybe I should feel grateful that I made someone realize that people can look different than what they’re used to. Self-expression. It’s a thing.