Let’s face it: foreigners are an often misunderstood bunch in China. We come from many places, speak many languages and represent many different walks of life, yet we are often looked upon as one singular entity, lumped together and stereotyped. No matter who we are or where we come from, we’re seen as “laowai” a word that tends to immediately evoke a reaction, conjuring up images and feelings that may or may not accurately describe the “laowai” in question. Here are six of the major misconceptions about foreigners in China.
1) Foreigners are all rich
It stands as no surprise that this is number one on the list. Most Chinese people assume that foreigners, especially Westerners, are rolling in the dough simply by virtue of having been born in America or France or Australia. Foreigners are often overcharged because the assumption is that they can afford to pay more since their countries are so much richer than China. The truth of the matter is, however, that many Westerners live paycheck to paycheck and do not have any significant amount of savings, and that people who are living in China long term, especially English teachers, are being paid wages that are a mere fraction of what they’d be making back home. Combine the two, and Westerners in China are not necessarily any richer than their local counterparts.
While it is true that the 5,000-10,000 RMB a month that the typical English teacher takes home is a lot compared to Chinese salaries, remember that foreigners have a lot more expenses than Chinese people do (like routine trips home, which can easily decimate a year’s worth of savings), and that when they eventually return home they’ll have to convert whatever money they’ve managed to save back into their own currency, at which point it loses a lot of its value.
2) Foreigners can’t speak Chinese
While it is true that your average tourist here to climb the Great Wall and see the Terracotta Warriors has probably not bothered to learn Chinese, foreigners who live in China long term usually have at least a basic grasp of the language, and those who don’t are almost always willing to learn. Moreover, the number of foreigners who have achieved true proficiency and even fluency in Chinese has increased dramatically over the years. The days of Da Shan are long gone, and it is no longer so uncommon for foreigners to learn Chinese. No longer is there any need to gush over foreigners clever enough to have learned how to say their name or “duo shao qian?”
Rather than assuming that Chinese is much too difficult for foreigners to master, Chinese people should give foreigners a bit of credit. Next time a foreigner walks into your shop, greet him with a “ni hao” rather than hello. If he can’t speak Chinese he’ll let you know, and if he can, he’ll be extremely grateful that you didn’t lump him in with the rest of the tourists.
3) Foreigners need luxury and can’t handle hardship
You’re planning a trip to the village down the way, having been invited there by a student, but when your boss gets wind of the plan he nixes it completely. The village is too dangerous. Inconvenient. Uncomfortable. You wouldn’t like it, he assures you. If you want to travel, a nice tour can be arranged. Sound familiar? Most of us have encountered some variation on the above theme at some point during our stay in China, but in fact, many, if not most, foreigners would love to experience real Chinese village life, even if it means a 12 hour bus ride or sleeping on a hard wooden bed or going to the bathroom in an outhouse. Most of us came to China expecting that sometimes our stay would be uncomfortable, that we would have to eat things we were not used to eating, travel in ways we were not used to traveling, and live in ways we were not used to living. That’s part of the fun, part of the adventure.
And while some Chinese people may be worried that foreigners will get the wrong impression if they visit the more off the beaten path places (some Chinese, particularly your bosses, are afraid that you will report home about how poor China is, in short, that you’ll be bad PR), this worry is mostly unfounded. Most foreigners from developed countries who visit Chinese villages do not report back about the filth or the poverty, but about the beautiful scenery and the kindness of the local people.
4) Real foreigners are white (and occasionally black)
If you’re a non-white foreigner, especially if you’re a native English speaker, it can be frustrating looking for a job when most employers seem to want only blonde-haired white folk who look the part. Asian foreigners have a particularly hard time of it, as it is very hard for most Chinese people to reconcile an Asian face with a Western background. Of course Chinese people know that Chinese-Americans (and Chinese Canadians, British-born Chinese, etc.) exist, but they often assume that these people are simply Chinese. They’ll be taken aback when a Chinese-American can’t speak the Chinese language and will complement the person on their English language proficiency. It can be a real uphill battle for non-white foreigners in China, especially those trying to make it as English teachers.
5) Foreign men are only after one thing
While there are enough foreign men in China who ARE after one thing and one thing only to have perpetuated the stereotype, there are also plenty of foreign men in China who are not here to systematically date every Chinese girl in town. Some foreign guys prefer foreign girls, some are happily married, and some are simply waiting for that very special someone to come along. Not all foreign men should be viewed with suspicion – the majority are decent sorts not much different from their Chinese counterparts.
6) Foreign women aren’t into Chinese guys
The number of foreign women dating and marrying Chinese men is certainly on the rise. Even five years ago such pairings were rare, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear Western women say they’d prefer to date Western guys, but times are changing. More foreigners are learning Chinese, for starters, including lots of women who previously wouldn’t have been able to communicate with the great Chinese men out there. Chinese guys are also becoming more open towards the possibility of dating a foreign girl. Thank the media, or the internet, but finding a foreign wife is no longer an impossibility, Chinese men.
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