Expats: It’s your own fault if you don’t integrate

A common site in Chinese bars.

“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.

A common site in Chinese bars.
A common sight in Chinese bars.

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.

  1. Good, honest article. I have lived in Beijing on two occasions. The first time, I was studying Chinese and lived as a typical foreigner, hanging out in bars with all my foreigner classmates and barely integrating past the classroom. I noted this and upon returning made a conscious effort to integrate – I moved into The Hutongs of Dong Cheng, worked closely with both Chinese and internationals. Consequently I learned infinitely more Mandarin, finally began to understand the Chinese lifestyle and culture and felt part of China. Though I must say that the stereotypes caused by the behavior of most other expats in China did not help me.

    1. Hey mon, just because your foreigners can’t integrate up your ass that doesn’t mean that these expats aren’t getting it, men or women somewhere else in China.

  2. From one China blogger to another, here’s my response.

    First of all, the claim that foreigners can’t integrate was just a small part of a larger argument, which was that being an expat here is great.

    Secondly, by integration, I mean to the point that our foreignness isn’t an issue. The subject of one of the upcoming editions of “In Praise Of” will be Da Shan. Da Shan is an extraordinary comedian who has carved out a unique career in the Chinese media establishment. Is his foreignness an issue? Of course it is. To some degree, it’s the point of his act.

    Thirdly, you mention that I quote a former colleague who said I should see “hello”ing as a threat to my manhood, but fail to mention that I disagree with the colleague, and even the mighty Peter Hessler, in saying that the “hellos” are most likely a gauche attempt at being friendly. I didn’t like the aforementioned colleague and am pretty sure he was only in China to cheat on his wife. And I doubt he was much good at that.

    Fourthly, you say foreigners should learn the language. In my time as blogs editor at The Nanfang from May 2012 to Jan. 2014 I wrote over 700 articles for The Nanfang. In the majority of those cases, I was the first person to put those articles into English. How could I have done that if I couldn’t speak, read and write the language to interpreter standard or thereabouts. I write and record songs in Chinese, and have been doing so since November 2008. Some would say my lyrics are controversial, but the songs have been the subject of features in Guangdong Television and some other state media. If I were all that anti-China or living in an expat bubble, that wouldn’t have been possible.

    Fifthly, we probably won’t see eye-to-eye. Such differences of opinion exchanged politely are what make China great. But I’m in some very good company. I think Stan Abrams of China Hearsay makes a better argument than I did: http://www.chinahearsay.com/expat-assimilation-tribalism-and-the-kaiser-kuo-show/

    Yours respectfully,
    Kevin McGeary

  3. Not very patronising at all…and can’t help but point out that Wang Fei is not very good, I hope you’re not going around telling Chinese people they’ll get along better in the US if they listen to Jason Mraz 😉

  4. You will never, ever fully integrate unless you look Chinese, and even then probably not. The highest level of integration you might achieve is to receive the praise that you are 半个中国人. But sure, try your best.

  5. “They were so happy to met me. Li Jiawei said I was the first foreign friend she has ever made.”
    “I should see the ‘hellos’ as challenges to my manhood.”

    It’s because of their Chinese foreign worshipping culture, the China gals love big things.
    “Why do some many foreigners come to China? McGeary says that many expats are looking for meaning.”

    China prostitutes and China dolls says the reject foreigners are there for one of 2 things, cheap China gals for long sex and rich China gals to marry for money or if the foreigners are lucky they can have both.
    “Everyone knows the stereotype of foreigners in China. The stereotype has been unfairly embedded into Chinese pop culture”

    Yeah that the white foreigners are rich and so romantic and the blacks are all big in the pants and they all have a passport, which all China people would love to own.

    And what the western stereotype of Chinese gals you don’t ask is that the China gals are all easy prostitutes and master’s little pet as they see in all the American movies.
    ‘Some will ask me why Americans aren’t so nice in the same way that Chinese are?’

    In black Amerika, Chinese are look down on lower than latinos and blacks by most whites and many white women think China men are all dirty old men and like most Indians.

    “Why is it hard for me to find friends?”

    Stupid China man if you are talking about finding a white woman just look at the movies, even Jackie Chan can’t get a white woman and kiss her in public like blacks can or even guys can.


  6. Basically sounds points you’re making here, but you got a bit carried away when you say “expats should adapt to Chinese culture” – sure, expats should at least try to understand Chinese culture, but whether they actually adapt to it is their business entirely. I wouldn’t order Chinese expats in America to adapt to American culture, but if they found that not adapting led to problems and then they went home, well, fair enough, that’s how it goes – and the same goes for expats in China.

    A problem underlying all of this is the fundamentally different modes of socialising / meeting new people – foreigners will continue to go to bars in Sanlitun simply because they’re the only places to hang out & meet new people in the evenings. Meanwhile Chinese people are at home, or maybe in a restaurant with friends, family or colleagues, not meeting strangers at all. It’s not an important problem, or an insoluble one, but it’s behind many of the misunderstandings, and it will continue to be the case.

  7. I’ll keep a foot in both camps. On the one hand I want to get out of the ghetto, on the other I dislike language leeches, passport chasers and disingenuous attempts at hanging out with a foreigner. Good people take a while to meet. It is unfortunately too easy to stay in your own comfort zone.

  8. You started by conflating meeting some people on the street with integrating into society.

    Also this: “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.” That’s not integration, that’s just being cognizant of your surroundings. A far cry from integration.

  9. Having lived in China for over 5 years, I can say this much…
    Expats, if you want to integrate…
    Leave behind your principles, your morals, your respect for human life, respect for humanity, respect for the planet, your sense if right and wrong, and any self respect you may have for yourself.

    When in Rome…

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