Being a Foreigner in China: Laowai reflections after three years behind the Great Wall.

Art display in Beijing's 798.

Three years ago I came to China full of wanderlust and a desire to learn the language. Thinking back on my life, I wanted to document the dualistic nature of life in the middle kingdom. Assuming the bias of an American, I hope to outline the inherent contradiction of being a LaoWai in China:

Advantage: Staggering numbers of people.

The infamous population numbers in China make for a land of opportunity. In terms of land mass and population, China is gigantic. If you travel here you are sure to experience a wealth of culinary, social and economic diversity. Old people, babies, Muslims, Christians, obscene wealth, abject povertyaccidental hipsters, rockersqueers, ridiculous obscene rap: you’ll find pretty much everything under the red sun. Outside the sphere of Chinese groups, expatriate communities in the larger cities allow you to mix socially with people from around the world. I’ve met and had great times with people from Africa, Scandinavia, Latin America, Russia, South East Asia, and the Middle East. My lovely girlfriend is from Brazil. It seems that many countries have heard of the various opportunities available in China. People come to study, teach, set up a Mr. Frostee franchise, work as engineers and doctors. I came over with CIEE to teach English and lived for one year in a small tier 4/5 city called SanMenXia [ 三门峡 ]. I have known people who have transitioned from teaching English to business related ventures, but the abundance of teaching jobs means that if you enjoy teaching (like I do) you will never be unemployed.

Disadvantage: Staggering numbers of people.

Tourists gather on the Great Wall outside Beijing. Major tourist destinations around China are witnessing travel peaks amid the eight-day Mid-autumn Festival and National Day holidays that run through until Sunday. (Stringer/Reuters photo)

A good illustration of the Chinese idiom “People Mountain People Sea” [人山人海] (Stringer/Reuters photo)

The unbelievable masses of Chinese people all struggling to achieve higher standards of living has had a detrimental impact on the environment. The World Bank has estimated  that, “China lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2004.” While this is uplifting news, that kind of unprecedented growth has had a visible impact on the surroundings. Nothing feels stranger than walking around a city full of toxic air. As far as you can see, which is not far, the entire heavens are filled with grey smog. Up, down, all around. You can stare at the sun. Chai Jing’s wonderful documentary Under the Dome [click on captions for English subtitles] illustrates some of the causes and effects of the poisonous air. 12 day traffic jams, food safety issues, and the infamous One Child Policy are reminders of the deleterious effects of having the world’s largest population.

Advantage: Lack of ethnic diversity.

Go to work on the subway and you will be struck by the racial uniformity that permeates China. The Han Chinese dominate 92% of mainland China’s population, and everywhere you go there are rows of black hair, dark eyes and similar skin complexion. You are now the exotic foreigner. You will be given special treatment and experience Chinese hospitality. People will generally be interested in you and you will get called over to join random people for dinner and drinks. During my first year in China I was invited to 4 different weddings.

Me and my American colleague documenting the rare and magnificent foreigner siting in HeNan. This was the first time I'd met/seen the couple. Nice wedding though!

Me and my American colleague documenting the rare and magnificent foreigner siting in HeNan. This was the first time I’d met/seen the couple. Nice wedding! Hope they are still happy.

Of those four weddings I knew the couple at only one of them. At most weddings I was invited to get on stage and sing or speak Chinese to the stunned audience of families. While belting out a heartfelt and ridiculous Chinese language rendition of the Backstreet Boys I’d learned, some of the families had their children run to the stage and give me flowers and cups of red wine. Felt good, would recommend. While some people have humorously mocked the Chinese wedding, I have frequently enjoyed myself at them.

Disadvantage: Lack of ethnic diversity

Gawking strangers and loud murmurs of LaoWai follow unabashedly everywhere you go. People yell hello in mocking voices and run off, giggling amongst their group of friends. No matter how fluently you read, speak or understand Chinese, local people will never treat you with any degree of normality. You are a novelty. You will be expected to perform at the regularly held craptaculars hosted at your school or work place. In my small town in HeNan it felt like I was making legitimate first contact with some people. The total lack of other races has made Chinese people overwhelmingly ignorant of their own racial biases and discrimination. The in-your-face racist comments appear to be even worse for black people. These kinds of problems can be tiresome, and have caused more than one person to leave China.

Advantage: China has a long history.

When I was randomly selected by CIEE to spend a year in SanMenXia, I learned it was the birthplace of an ancient Chinese text I have loved since first reading it in High School. The Tao Te Ching, the philosophical inspiration of the beautiful Yin Yang symbol, was supposedly written at HanGu Pass [函谷关] outside the city. The Taoist monk inside me smiles with a sense of predetermined destiny.

A picture I snapped of the actual 2,000+ year old HanGu pass while visiting in 2012.

A picture I snapped of the actual 2,000+ year old HanGu pass while visiting in 2012.

Another shot of the pass, which you can climb up into.

Another shot of the pass, which you can climb up into.

Outside the pass stands a monolithic golden statue of LaoZi. My local Chinese friend told me there was some controversy in SanMenXia about its cost.

Outside the pass stands a monolithic golden statue of LaoZi. My local Chinese friend told me there was some controversy in SanMenXia about its cost.

The more Chinese you learn, the more fascinating the history becomes. From the historical novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms and [ 明朝那些事儿 ] to a banned non-fiction book documenting the great famine that occurred during the Great Leap Forward [ 大跃进 ], many periods in Chinese history are fascinating and well worth looking at.

Disadvantage: China has a long history.

The roots of the foreign barbarian ideology run a long way back in Chinese history. While I would in no way compare my treatment in China to being a Black person in America (VERY different histories), there does seem to be one interesting parallel in stereotyping (ie. the stereotype that foreign men are hyper-sexual and have large penises). This appears a bit similar to the stereotypes of African Americans as detailed on NPR. Certain strains of Chinese thought don’t approve of interracial relationships, and want to throw out the foreign trash. If you read the comments section on any nationalistic Chinese press, there appears to be no shortage of xenophobia in China. Some of these sentiments may arise from what is known as the Century of Humiliation [ 百年国耻 ], a period of time when an alliance of western powers invaded and colonized parts of China, destroying the Old Summer Palace [ 圆明园 ]. Xenophobia spread during an isolationist period in the 20th century. While reading a beautiful, biographical comic book called [从小李到老李] about one Chinese person’s experience growing up during the Cultural Revolution, I ran into an unexpected scene where the protagonist is asked, “Have you ever seen a foreign person before?” Li KunWu, the main character, responds by saying yes and comments on the fact that foreigners’s eyes are many different colors: green, blue etc. His friend is incredulous and replies “I don’t believe that, only cats have blue eyes.” Li counters with weird ignorance logic saying, “Ha, they are like tigers. They [foreigners] only eat meat. We [Chinese] are herbivore animals, so naturally we don’t look alike.” In Chinese, it sounds like they are describing a different animal entirely. The LaoWainimal. After this exchange Li admits that he has never actually seen a foreigner before.

你见过真正的外国人吗?Have you seen a real foreigner before?

你见过真正的外国人吗?Have you seen a real foreigner before?

”哈!他们跟老虎一样,只吃肉。我们是食草动物,当然长得不一样“ Ha! They are like tigers, they only eat meat. We are herbivore animals, so naturally we don't look alike!

”哈!他们跟老虎一样,只吃肉。我们是食草动物,当然长得不一样啦“ Ha! They are like tigers, they only eat meat. We are herbivore animals, so naturally we don’t look alike!

I’ve seen the word “Foreign Devil” [洋鬼子] used unironically online and in some television series, but I’ve never encountered it hatefully in my life. The brunt of the anti foreign sentiment seems to be leveled at Japan. Either way the historical meaning of being foreign in China doesn’t seem to be so awesome.

Advantage: Life in China is a utilitarian affair.

I know this is not true for everyone, but in my personal experience things in China have worked. Not flawlessly, but they have worked. My water runs, the air conditioner makes the room cool, the stove cooks, the elevator lifts, taxis are cheapish, a new subway car arrives every five minutes without fail, the bus system runs on time, the gym has every machine/free weight I could need, the yoga classes are great, and a Chinese doctor once saved a friend of mine who experienced a nearly fatal bout of pancreatitis. Things function in their wacky Chinese way, and most people work hard everyday.

Disadvantage: Life in China is a utilitarian affair.

If something can pass for okay in China then most people stop thinking about it. Right now there is a concrete block holding the undercarriage of my sink up. It has always been thus, and I have never had one issue with leakage or clogging.

Chinese Macgyverism in action.

Chinese Macgyverism in action.

I’ve called people over to my house to fix issues with a shower head or stove, and the response seems relatively prompt and effective. Matters always seem to get resolved, but you get the sense that if they could just paint over a problem and stop complaints they would. China is an impressive innovator in the field of Jerry rigging, and the idea that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” seems to hold water here. These anecdotal cultural observations may offer a glimpse at why careless lack of oversight (combined with a healthy dose of corruption) could result in something like the TianJin explosion or the disproportionate collapse of schools and government buildings during the 2008 WenChuan earthquakes.

In conclusion:

I’ve enjoyed my time in the Middle Kingdom and I love and respect the culture and people here. I feel privileged to have experienced many wonderful things in China. From touring Shanghai:

A photo I took on a boat tour at night on the Bund in Shanghai.

A photo I took on a boat tour at night on the Bund in Shanghai.

To the middle aged drunken birthday parties:

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To the more enjoyable craptaculars I’ve taken part in with students:

A rousing time of mummifying after a Halloween craptacular.

A rousing time of mummifying after a Halloween craptacular.

To camping trips in the Chinese countryside with some salt of the Earth Chinese farmers:

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I am grateful for the time I’ve spent here and any wisdom or growth that has been given to me by my host country. But don’t listen to me, because “Those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak.”

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1 Comment on "Being a Foreigner in China: Laowai reflections after three years behind the Great Wall."

  1. good read…love the quote. “Those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak.”
    I love posts with an attitude of gratitude. keep it going.

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