“Why do so many foreigners still insist upon living in a land where, at this point in history, integration is impossible?” Kevin McGeary writes in a post at The Nanfang.
I am reading his post while I sit in a coffee shop after getting back from seeing the plum blossoms at Zijin Mountain with two Chinese college students I met yesterday at Xuanwu Lake (see post: Plum Blossom Festival photos). I met the two students when one of them looked at me and said, “Hello,” and I replied, “Nihao.” They were so happy to met me. Li Jiawei said I was the first foreign friend she has ever made.
I relate this story not to say anything about myself but just to show how easy it is to integrate—or to make friends, anyway—in China.
Of course, the students struck up a conversation with me because of my skin color. They knew with almost 100 percent certainty that I’m a foreigner, and they assumed, also with a high degree of accuracy, that I can speak English.
Some Chinese people will go out of their way to say hi to foreigners. Young children will point out foreigners on the street and say, “Wai guo ren!” (“Foreigner!”) in the same way they would point at firetrucks. In an article for Vagabond Journey, I wrote about how many Chinese tourists used to take pictures with me when I worked as a bar promoter on Foreigner Street in Dali, Yunnan.
This kind of special attention irks many foreigners in China. So much so that McGeary quotes one of his former English teacher colleagues as saying that, “I should see the ‘hellos’ as challenges to my manhood.”
To those foreigners who have come to China and get offended by these local customs, I can only say, Get over yourself.
You made a choice to come to a foreign country, and you should adapt to life here. China shouldn’t adapt to you. Why do some many foreigners come to China? McGeary says that many expats are looking for meaning. “China is the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, it is the world’s most populous nation, the land of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors,” McGeary writes.
I agree. China’s long and storied history and culture was one factor that attracted me, along with its current situation of breakneck development. Indeed, China’s culture is very different than that of the West.
Westerners shouldn’t view China through Western-tinted glasses. For someone to point out a foreigner on the street and ask to take a picture with them would be extremely offensive in the West. Indeed, you wouldn’t even know who a foreigner is in the West. Chinese people guess (usually accurately) that anyone who looks like a foreigner is a foreigner. China has had nowhere near the amount of immigration as America or Western Europe.
Chinese people view all foreigners and presumed foreigners as guests in the land of the Yellow Emperor. Chinese are very hospitable to guests. If you are visiting their home, their city, and especially their country, they feel they need to be a good host in order to have face. As a foreigner, try splitting the bill at a restaurant with new friend. They won’t have it. The first time Chinese friends invited me out to lunch when I was an exchange student at Nanjing University, the two Chinese students fought over who would get to pay. One of them even took the other’s money out of the waiter’s hand.
Expats should view Chinese people’s actions through the prism of Chinese culture, and expats should adapt to Chinese culture, knowing that it is different than their homeland’s culture. When Chinese are flattering you with attention, it’s just because they are trying to be friendly.
The question, “Where are you from?”, invariably one of the first questions asked when a Chinese person mets a foreigner, would be impossible to ask in America. “I’m an American,” would be the likely answer, if there was an answer at all. It’s a function in part of the large number of immigrants in America, and also, as McGeary notes, “racial sensitivity that pervades these [Western] societies.”
The American attitude of indifference in someone’s race or nationality is, similarly, an annoyance to some Chinese study abroad students in America. When a Chinese student asks what I think of Chinese people, I always note their cordiality and hospitality. Some will ask me why Americans aren’t so nice in the same way that Chinese are? “Why is it hard for me to find friends?” It’s just that America has a history and culture that has shaped our society in different ways. Nothing can be done to change that, but all you can do for yourself is to adapt. (I explore the problems of study abroad students in more detail in my article: Looking For Freedom From the Chinese Education System.)
The point is, if you came to China because of their culture, then you should try to experience Chinese culture. That doesn’t mean drinking in Sanlitun every night in bars with 70 RMB cocktails and bitching to some expat friends about how intolerant Chinese people are. Everyone knows the stereotype of foreigners in China. The stereotype has been unfairly embedded into Chinese pop culture by people like CCTV host Yang Rui with his anti-foreigner rant, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t sometimes true.
Many foreigners socialize mostly or exclusively with other foreigners, and then they wonder why they don’t feel like they are a part of China. Hong Kong is in many ways more accommodating to foreigners than anywhere in China. “Asia’s World City” is more developed, has more foreign culture, and uses English as an official language. Yet, according to HSBC’s 2012 survey of expats worldwide (pdf), 80 percent of expats in Hong Kong “socialise almost entirely with other expats.”
McGeary writes that, “In legislative terms, efforts are being made to help foreigners integrate.” But its not the Chinese government’s—or Chinese’s people’s—responsibility to make us foreigners integrate. The cultural issues that some foreigners don’t like about China, moreover, come from society, not primarily from the government.
For expats to integrate, they should learn the language, get used to Chinese people’s habits (including their “hellos”), brush up on some basic Chinese pop culture (learn to enjoy Faye Wong every once in a while), learn about Chinese history and festivals, and be accepting of inevitable cultural misunderstandings. Chinese people are more than happy to meet foreigners half way if they make an effort.