“Or something”

China Diaries
4 min readMay 6, 2022


For a country that is so strict, so absolutely black and white, things are actually very grey here, fuzzy around the constantly shifting edges. In a WeChat group I’m in for foreigners in Shenzhen, someone asks about getting an Airbnb for a vacation rental. After much discussion and speculation, it is determined that certain owners or landlords may not rent to foreigners. The same applies for hotels and apartments.

We are all used to anti-foreigner fear, sentiment, and discrimination, so we all assume that this is what it is. Finally a message appears that states:

“It’s because hotels/home stays etc need a specific permit (or something) to register foreigners.”

Or something. None of us know. There are foreigners in the group that have been here for years and still don’t have any idea why some things happen while others don’t. We are all left scratching our heads. Though, with this new information, it seems it’s not just personal discrimination. It’s systemic. The government of China itself is not just not doing anything to make life easier for us, it’s deliberately making it harder. With the visa I have, a B work visa, I am only allowed to stay until a certain age. While China wants my labor, it does not want to care for my needs as I age out of the work force.

It’s a stark realization. I am, even if I fall in love with this place, not welcome. I am not, unless I get married here (a monumental “if”, given the cultural expectations associated with family life in China), going to be here long term. It’s not just my choice. It’s by design.

Procedurally, though, things change by the minute. My covid testing mini-app one day allows me to proceed with my scannable QR code as normal, the next day I am holding up the entire line as I alone have to tell the medical worker who scanned me my birthdate, gender, and other demographic information. There is nowhere on the app to input it myself. I find a workaround, another scannable code that has the information linked, then come to find out my coworker’s has already become unlinked. We float along like this, in a sea of misunderstanding and confusion, treading water, taking small sips of air.

Culturally, expectations here are constantly shifting as well. My school administrator will assign me a task then never follow up, leaving it unmentioned, cast aside. I have learned not to take my assignments too seriously. And, should I have to present something, I will invariably be told to redo it, no matter how much work I have put into it. I’ve frequently re-done my work five to six times. I recall the words of a long-time kindergarten teacher here who told me, when I first arrived, “sandbag everything”.

My inner world surprises me with its shifts and machinations as well. Two dates with a boy and I am starting to get attached, asking him why text communication has dropped off, what the expectations are, wanting more. Then, he picks up the thread and I am suddenly, to my own shock, uninterested in the game of checking in and following up. I feel secure. I will see him this weekend, and I relish the breathing space a couple of days of no contact allows me.

I’ve never been this girl before. I stand before her and marvel. No longer needy and scared. Perhaps overcompensating a bit, standoffish, armed and defensive. This isn’t going to last anyway. A notification just popped up on my phone (now). A text from him. It’s probably him canceling. Wow. Maybe I am still a bit scared, but I am channeling my fear through different channels now. Still, though I’ve swung past the balance point, I like this stance better. Where I felt weak before, sensitive, foolish, now I feel strong, protected, in control.

For the first time in my life I have to actually counsel myself not to ruin it with him by pushing him away. Remind myself that I do, in fact, like spending time with him, and I like the boundaries that we’ve set. I am safe to enter into a space of connection, and safe to kiss him goodbye at the end of the night, safe to return to myself. Always welcome home.

A grocery delivery driver called me the other day. When my phone rang, for the first time in China, I was excited. No fear, no dread. I fully expected the call and had the language to negotiate it. He asked to confirm my apartment’s location and was able to. I asked if he could come up to my room rather than leaving the bag on the table downstairs, and he did. I hate to brag, but I nailed it.

I have a long way to go to achieve my goals, and that is so exciting. Learning to love the process, I think, is the actual reward, because I am coming to realize I will never achieve the bigger goals. I will never be as fluent as a native Chinese person. I will never be as ripped as a bodybuilder (unless I can quit my job and dedicate my life to the gym — any sugar daddies out there wanting to make this happen?). And, bodybuilders have to work out consistently. I use and practice my languages, including English, consistently. I am already being consistent with my goals, which means I am on the road that leads to the place I want, a road that gets easier and easier as I go because it builds on itself. That, to me, is exciting.

Now, let’s text that boy back in Chinese ;)



China Diaries

Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.