“I have more freedom in China”

This is what a Saudi Arabian girl said to me today at work. She was a prospective student looking to learn english at our center.  Any person who decides that they want to learn English at our center must go through an Oral Placement Test or  an“OPT”. This test determines their starting level . During this process a teacher sits with the prospective student, asks them some questions and categorizes their level based on their responses.

She sat across from me wearing the traditional clothing that most Saudi Arabian women are required to wear in public. Her whole body was covered and I could only see part of her face. She was beautiful and looked so young.  Her arms were folded nervously across her lap and she was bowing her head. As she was bowing her head towards me, her brother was pacing back and forth outside of the testing room. All the separate rooms in our center have glass doors so everything is transparent. It was so interesting because although this girl could not see her brother pacing behind her, I think she sensed it. It’s very uncommon for Saudi Arabian women to be alone with a foreigner.

Just a side note, my center is located near all of the embassies in Beijing. While the majority of our students are Chinese,  It isn’t uncommon for us to have students from Libya, Iran or Saudi Arabia.

I began  asking some  basic questions like “ What is your name?”, “Where are you from?, “ “How old are you?”,etc. She was able to answer those questions easily and I moved on to the next level which contains questions like “ What do you like to do in you free time?”, “ What do you like to do on the weekends?”. She tensed up when I asked those questions and she said she didn’t do much. It was hard for me to believe that a sixteen-year-old girl doesn’t enjoy her free time, but I quickly realized that so much of what she does is monitored.

I sensed that we wouldn’t get much further in the OPT and then I had an idea. I asked her if she liked taking pictures of anything. To be honest, I can’t really tell you why this question popped up in my head. Perhaps it was the fact that both of us were foreigners in this country and may have the tendency to take pictures of things that are foreign to us.  Her eyes lit up.  She said  “I love to take picture and I have Instagram!. I have freedom in China and in my country women can’t do anything.” She looked away from me as she said this. I told her I was happy she was finding life in Beijing so wonderful. She then said, “I hope that I can always stay in China because of the freedom but Chinese too hard to learn so I learn English.”I asked her a few more questions and then concluded the session. She said thank you and I told her I hoped to see her soon.

After I finished teaching my next class, I went back to my office and just sat at my computer for a while. I was reeling with thoughts about my experience with this girl.  Here we were, two young women living in a vastly different country than our own. To her, China is a place of freedom and a place of opportunity. She can actually pursue a career here. She is legally allowed to drive a car. She can have Instagram. She can take a class taught by a male. All of those things are illegal in Saudi Arabia. From a westerner’s perspective, China seems more restricted than China. Facebook is blocked. Free speech is punishable.  Advertising is monitored and comparative advertising is illegal. National news is monitored. If you own a car, it can only be driven six days a week. But to the young Saudi Arabian girl, living in China is a way to be free. Although we come from vastly different backgrounds we both bonded over Instagram and discussed how we liked to take pictures of Chinese babies.

Everyday I go to work knowing I’m going to learn something new about another culture and also better understand how different cultures find common ground. Having experiences like this confirms the reason I am here.

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