Imagine my excitement in June 2019 when I first received word that I would be going to Shanghai and Beijing for the trip of a lifetime! All expenses would be paid, I would get to meet students at ALO7’s local partner schools and finally get to meet my Shanghai colleagues in person. There was one colleague in particular from the Shanghai office whom I would be spending most of my time with – someone I had never met nor talked to. That person would be Hannah, as introduced to me by my colleague, Jason, through WeChat. Hannah and I had never talked on the phone, and I had only seen a few photos of her. The only exchange of communication we had was through a few messages on WeChat, and her warning me of how cold it would be in Beijing. I would be spending nearly all my time with someone I had never met, and we grew up worlds apart in different cultures! How was this going to turn out?
I heard some misinformed opinions about Chinese women from a few of the people I told about my trip. I was told that Chinese women were submissive and demure. Rather than believe these stereotypical assumptions, I decided to ask my well-traveled cousin, Neal, what Chinese women were like and how I would be treated as an American woman in China. He told me Chinese women were as tough as nails, among other things;
“Chinese women are like bullets, really,” Neal explained with me over video chat, “They are not submissive. They’re as tough as nails and don’t take anything from anyone. You’ll fit in just fine.”
I grinned happily and then stopped for a moment, wondering what he was implying by that comment and playfully asked, “Hey, wait. What are you trying to say there?”
Neal’s well-educated opinion introduced me to the idea that the role of women in China is complicated, just as it is here in the United States. My experiences with women in China would show me that our roles around the world are often difficult to define. Kira O’Sullivan confirms this about women in China in her article for Fair Observer: “There is no accepted role for women; some women are CEOs and government officials, whilst others opt for completely different lifestyles.”1
My journey through China with Hannah would reveal just how true Neal’s observation was. Once I safely arrived in Shanghai and found Hannah and Vivian, our first conversations in the cab were spent discussing the personalities of our colleagues in the office. While my eyes were drinking in the sights of Shanghai, my ears were adjusting to the sound of English spoken with a Chinese accent and the Chinese language, in general.
It would have been nearly impossible for me to communicate comfortably with my taxi driver, with how sophisticatedly Hannah was explaining things to our driver. I wasn’t out to prove anything in China; I’ve never been here, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was ready to learn and have an adventure. For that, I was already thankful that I would have a confident and competent citizen of China to lead me through my journey.
From our first meal out, I could tell that Hannah and I were going to end up having more in common rather than differences. I decided to try using chopsticks and had been practicing in the United States a few months before my trip. I felt reasonably confident in my use of chopsticks, but as soon as Hannah saw me gripping the chopsticks so close to the edge, she said, “Oh no, no! You can’t hold the chopsticks that way. That is how little kids hold them. You need to hold them further back.” She demonstrated her adept grip on her chopsticks and ate just as quickly as an American would with a fork. Not wanting to look like a child on top of an already wide-eyed foreigner, I tried to adapt as much as I could. But, it turns out that holding them further back is more difficult. However, I was determined to struggle through and save my dignity – and hope the people of China would forgive my obvious lack of chopsticks using skills. Despite only knowing each other in person for a few hours, Hannah didn’t hesitate in letting me know what was what – and that told me a lot about her personality. I admired her tenacity and straightforwardness. I am often told at home this is one of my most admired qualities, as well.
After we visited the ALO7’s corporate office in Shanghai the next day, Hannah took me to the French concession area of Shanghai. It didn’t look as though we were in Shanghai anymore. It was as if we had hopped a plane to Paris except for the noticeable number of Chinese people walking around us. We stopped to get some yogurt served in actual coconut bowls, and it wasn’t long until “girl talk” ensued. We talked about our previous dating experiences, and Hannah was curious about how American men treated women in contrast to Chinese men.
As Hannah and I strolled the streets eating our creatively presented yogurts, we walked past a couple in a wedding gown and a tuxedo taking wedding photos in picturesque spots. “So, do you think he wanted to marry you?” Hannah asked, referring to a previous beau I had disclosed to her earlier.
“I think he did.” I responded, trying my best to minimize somehow the arrival of a blue mouth and lips from my poorly chosen yogurt flavor. It was delicious, but the consequential blue stain was not becoming of a 29-year-old woman who already stuck out as a foreigner!
“Why do you only say you think? Did he not say for sure if he wanted to marry you?” Hannah asked curiously.
We eyed the engaged couple taking their merry wedding photos as I thought for a moment. “He only seemed to hint at it, saying he wanted to get me an engagement ring,” I said as I played with my yogurt a bit, getting the feeling that Hannah may have something very direct to say about this. “I think maybe I didn’t say I wanted to get engaged enough, so maybe he was scared I’d say no.”
I looked over at Hannah, and her face showed an opinion waiting to emerge. She was not smiling. She was not smirking, nor did she look like she agreed with this idea. In fact, she looked a bit dumbfounded and annoyed by this reasoning. She was not impressed by this American man’s lack of courage, and she said without a hint of hesitation, “You can do better.”
There were plenty of other times we discussed how women approach dating in the United States and China, and we found that women in both countries struggle with their new equality in the 21st century. When I explained that American men and Chinese men share more similarities than differences, Hannah nodded in agreement as we swapped stories.
I was blindsided by another unexpected connection that I can only describe in the end as truly unexplainable, perhaps even fateful. During my college undergraduate career, I concentrated my research on Holocaust studies and completed a thesis on the influence of music during the Holocaust among the Jewish victims. Hannah and I visited a museum about the history of Shanghai after we visited the Oriental Pearl Tower.
As we walked through the museum, I found it intriguing how well the Shanghai curators had seamlessly integrated a mix of East and West. One exhibit, however, left me breathless. This exhibit showed how China helped Jewish refugees from the Holocaust during the Second World War. According to the Atlantic, Shanghai became one of the few safe havens for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution: “Aside from the Dominican Republic, Shanghai was the only place that remained open to these refugees, and 20,000 or so European Jews found their way to the city in the late 1930s.”2 I gasped, and looked over the display, and Hannah obviously noticed my fascination.
“Do you like this?” She asked with a calm inquisitiveness displayed frequently during our conversations.
“Yes, I wrote an entire thesis about Jewish culture in college!” I exclaimed.
“You know, I always liked the things about the Jews, too. We took care of them here during the war,” Hannah explained.
“I studied Hebrew in college, actually,” I mentioned as I walked around the display, “And the root of my name, Annette, is Hannah. Our names both come from the Hebrew name Channah (חנה).”
Though we looked different and grew up differently, we realized we are more the same than we are different, even sharing essentially the same name. Upon realizing this, we were both quiet for a moment as we contemplated the unexpected connection between us once again. I’m not going to try and tell you I understand what these connections meant; how going to a museum to discover the history of Shanghai led to something so deeply meaningful to me, and unexpectedly, also to Hannah.
I thought in the glory and splendor of reaping the fruits of my hard work on my trip to China, that fate had nothing to do with it. But after this exchange, I wondered if perhaps fate is the inevitable end of where you are led after you make all of the best choices possible when you do what you know to be right, as much as you can, and be open to where these choices take you.
On one of our shopping and exploring rendezvous, I was adamant to Hannah that I wanted to buy an iconic qipao (旗袍) dress as a souvenir. A qipao is a dress unique to Chinese fashion for women from Shanghai: “The cheongsam, also known as a qipao, is a close-fitting dress that originated in 1920s Shanghai. It quickly became a fashion phenomenon that was adopted by movie stars and schoolgirls alike. The history of this iconic garment reflects the rise of the modern Chinese woman in the twentieth century.”
Hannah was patient and even helped me through a bargaining experience where I thoroughly irritated a shop owner by my uncompromising bargaining wishes and picky tastes. I kept asking Hannah to help me bargain with the dress shop owner in Shanghai Old Street (七宝老街) to reduce the price of the qipao I wanted from 800 yuan down to 300. There was an angry exchange between the shop owner and Hannah; however, the shop owner finally gave in. I got the qipao I wanted at the price I wanted, thanks to the help of Hannah, but I wondered if there was more to the slightly uncomfortable exchange.
“That lady seemed mad. Was she really mad, or was she putting on a show?” I asked.
“Sometimes they put on a show. She was saying to me that I should tell you that the price she was offering was good, and you should just take it.” Hannah explained.
“But that’s not the price I wanted. So was she really mad?” I asked.
“I told her that. But she said to me just tell you to take the price, and that you’re just a foreigner and I should tell you to do that. I told her I wouldn’t because you’re not just a foreigner, and that you’re my friend.” She said firmly and proudly. I could feel an instant smile forming on my face, and I realized throughout these past few days, and with that statement, Hannah and I weren’t just getting along or tolerating each other; we had become friends.
It took that moment for me to realize that our friendship and connection had progressed from a few WeChat messages a week ago to walking arm in arm through the park in Shanghai, sharing stories of our families and heritages. Even as we sat on the Beijing wall to take a rest, we talked about our hopes and dreams and what people we hoped would come into our lives to make this happen. We connected over the many meals we had as we talked about our ancestors; how they found the strength to overcome wars, famine, and tragedies as orphans to help bring about a future for themselves (and consequently, for us). I almost found I had more in common with Hannah than I did my American female counterparts at home, despite the differences in our looks, customs, and cultures.
When people ask me what my favorite part of the trip was, I always answer with Hannah. The sights were spectacular, and the food was great, but the culture is nothing without the person. I made a new friend for life in China through Hannah, and there is truly no better way to experience a new culture than by making a friend who is different from you – or perhaps, not as different as you had assumed. Our friendship will always be the best souvenir I will carry with me in my heart from China.
An Unexpected Friendship: The Best Souvenir (Part 3 of The Splendor of China)
1 O’Sullivan, Kira, Jacob Locke, Aileen Jiang, and KnowledgeWharton •. “The Role of Women in China.” Fair Observer, May 17, 2014. https://www.fairobserver.com/region/central_south_asia/role-women-china/.
2 Griffiths, James. “Shanghai’s Forgotten Jewish Past.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, November 23, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/shanghais-forgotten-jewish-past/281713/.
Annette Nagle is a native of Altoona, Pennsylvania and works as an independent musician, music teacher and language teacher. Annette has a Bachelor of Arts in Letters, Arts and Sciences from Penn State, with honors from the Schreyer Honors College. She is a classically trained pianist and opera singer (lyric coloratura mezzo-soprano). Previously, Annette has sang with her college choir in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. She has previously taught introductory music at Penn Highlands Community College for several semesters. Annette has been working with ALO7 since February 2018, and was selected as ALO7’s Online Teacher of the Year in 2019. In addition to teaching ESL, she does secondary work with the company as a member of the academic team, video production team, and is part of the recruitment team during hiring periods as well. In addition to working with ALO7, Annette currently teaches piano and voice privately, and is a freelance organist, pianist and choir director for local churches and music groups.