Go East to feel West?
Life in China has brought about many novelties for me. However, one has been especially intriguing. In China, for the first time in my life, people see me as a Westerner, with all its pros and cons.
Personally, throughout my life, I have never intimately defined myself as European or Westerner, even though my self-understanding has been greatly shaped by what we refer to as “Western culture.” Yet, the society that I come from – Southeast Europe / Western Balkans / former Yugoslavia – is seen, both by locals and foreigners, as a non-European one, having its distinctive characteristics – from the non-European, Ottoman path to modernity, to the infamous wars of the late 20th / early 21st century. Although geographically it is part of Europe, it still remains as an external Other. On the other hand, the West in the Southeast European common sense is a foreign and distant entity, both discursively [in terms of development disparity] and physically [due to the limited ability to travel].
And here I am in China, where the term “Balkans” is all but known or relevant [only Belgrade is an exception, due to the 1999 China embassy bombing during the NATO campaign against FRY]. What matters, however, is my skin color and my average English accent, which for the majority of Chinese [struggling with pronunciation, as "we" struggle pronouncing Mandarin] sounds native-like. These two features were enough for me to be assigned the role of a Westerner, or more precisely, a European [and I feel more European in Beijing rather than in Brussels].
If nothing else, this is a puzzling situation and maybe a prelude to serious research work on the topic. I hope that I will soon write some notes on how Chinese see foreigners and vice versa; and will attempt to discuss China from a Balkan perspective [in order to maintain my Balkanocentrism, of course].