Travelling in China as a Laowai (foreigner) can be frustrating at times. I love getting off the beaten track and exploring new parts of the country, but it’s sometimes difficult to cope with the laowai ‘reaction’ that follows you closely wherever you go.
We had particular difficulty in a town called 舟山 Zhōu shān. As we walked down the street, we were met by lots of ‘hellos’ and giggles at our Chinese. At first, you don’t notice so much, but it starts to get wearing.
So, why do I get so frustrated at people say ‘hello’ to me? (You must be starting to think that I’m a grumpy bugger). I think the biggest problem is that I don’t like being put in a box. I don’t think it’s fair to the millions of non-English speaking travellers through China. The assumption that every person with white skin speaks English is downright unfair. I consider myself very lucky to have been born in an English-speaking country, but if I hadn’t, I imagine that the assumption that I was would drive me crazy!
So, I don’t reply. The ‘hello’ stalkers either disappear, or keep repeating ‘hello’. The repeat offenders sometimes get in trouble if they frustrate me enough. Short, sharp Chinese snaps back at them from me. In the worst case scenario they throw “Oh, your Chinese is great!” back at me. At that point, I have to walk away. This conversation is going nowhere. Fast.
In my mind, I’m thinking, “My Chinese is crap. I’ve said two sentences”. From their side, they’re trying to compliment me. But compliments just don’t work at this point. I’m quite happy to accept compliments. But talk to me for five minutes. Look at my conversation skills. Look at my pronunciation. If we can carry out an enjoyable, interesting conversation, then you can compliment me.
The other favourite conversation starter is: “Where are you from?”. I totally understand why. Some strange-looking people are traipsing through their countryside village, covered in sweat, carrying all their belongings on their back and you want to know where they’re from. I get it. But, woah, this starts to get old. And, truly, the correct answer at the moment is Beijing. I live and work in Beijing. But if I say Beijing, this just leads to a conversation full of confusion. Again, I think of the ‘laowai’ who have been brought up in China. There are so many of them in Beijing! Walking past the local high school, I see ‘foreign’ children switching between two or three languages, one of which being Chinese, with ease. Many of these kids consider themselves Chinese. They’ve been brought up and educated in China, so of course they do! I imagine, however, that they face this ‘laowai’ frustration on a regular basis.
Some places were great though! In the little town of 景宁 Jǐngníng, most passersby were surprised by our presence and asked: “What brings you here?”, “Are you travelling?”, etc. These questions open up an conversation that naturally develops and answers all of their curiosities as we chat. As a result, we loved staying here and learnt a lot about the area and it’s people.
A lovely lady in 杭州 Hángzhōu spent a few minutes chatting whilst waiting to cross the road. Her final words were: “时间长就会了” (If you study for long enough, you’ll be able to speak Chinese). This is the reaction that I love. This is the encouragement that I need.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love China. I love Chinese people. I live here!! If I didn’t love it, I’d live somewhere else! I know that we’re unusual, but it’s just that I don’t like being treated that way. And, I think that’s in part due to my upbringing. I don’t like being singled out, I’d much rather just fit in with everyone else. However, thinking about Chinese culture, people who are different are always treated differently. Teachers, relatives, guests are showered with gifts. Are we being respected? If this is the case, then I should be grateful. But, why do we have to be? It’s never going to feel comfortable.
On a lighter note my favourite conversation for the trip went like this:
A girl (to her friend): 啊呀！两个外国人！［”Oh, wow, two foreigners”］
Zac: 啊呀！两个中国人在说中文呢！ ［”Oh, wow! Two Chinese girls speaking Chinese!”］
Girl (to Zac): “!” “You can say Chinese?”
(Ah, sarcasm just doesn’t cross cultural divides).
All these ideas can be summed up beautifully in this song by Ember Swift.
English Translation (although no English version exists)
i am not just a foreigner
i am not just a foreigner
i am not that strange
just a person
i am not an animal in the zoo
you can’t just take my picture
not unless you pay me first, each shot 100RMB
here’s another good idea: go away!
i go into a restaurant, i want to order
i’m starving “waitress, please come quick!”
she comes to the table and laughingly asks me, “and you know how to use chopsticks?”
“please bring my food quickly!” I’m so uncomfortable!
foreigners are not just one kind of person
we come to Beijing from every corner of the world
we all know how to speak a bit of Chinese, we are all used to Chinese food
some of us even have Chinese spouses, we are not that strange!
(rap: by Niu Mu)
i am not an animal in the zoo…