The other day my wife and I were walking through a kind of upscale mall when we heard (in English) “Hey foreigner! Come here! Foreigner buy things!”

This isn’t unusual for me. There is a joke in my organization that being a foreigner in China is like being an animal in the zoo (it is for this reason that we honestly do not sit near windows while we eat). People treat you like you are famous, but you really wish you weren’t. Kyle and I used to play pool in the very back of the dingiest, darkest pool hall in Longzhou because it was the only public place we could go and only be mildly bothered by gawkers. Imagine if every time you went shopping there were whispers each time you placed something in your cart.

The handbook I was given when I first arrived in China warned against learning how to swear just so you tell them exactly where to go whenever someone says “hello” to you. We new comers thought that who ever had written it must have been in China far too long. So far I’ve just barely managed to stay within those guidelines.

Before you judge me too much for this, you have to understand how many kinds of “hello” there are. There is the sweet and simple “hi” from students walking by on campus. There is the over eager “hello, can we be friends?” from the student you were trying to avoid. There is the “HAALLOOO” shouted from the back of a motorcycle, shared by two fully grown men, giggling like school girls. There is also the chorus of “heelllooo” that comes from a passing pack of children, who seem to be playing a rousing round of irritate the foreigners.

Each “hello” says so much more than the word implies, for most of the people I meet it is their entire English vocabulary. The “hello” from the construction workers across the street directed at my wife (or me?) sounds like the stereotypical cat call we imagine construction workers spending their lunch breaks perfecting. From the guy on the back of the motorcycle, it feels like we are the butt of the cruelest joke he could imagine, and that the joke is deeply racist. From the over eager student, “hello” is just a pretense for asking us for a favor that will never be repaid, for a co-worker we never really liked.

When we talk with people about all of the hello-ing they tell us that these people are just being friendly. However in Chinese culture no one greets strangers, not even classmates that you aren’t close friends with. So all the attention serves as a reminder that we are not like everyone else.

8 responses to “Helllloooo…Hallloooo…”

  1. Sharon Merchant says:

    Hi Tom, this article is exactly what I was talking about. Even if I were to visit China, I would not know the diference in a friendly hello or something that means so much more. It gives me a better idea of how the other side of the world lives. Keep up your blog, I am enjoying it and hope others are reading as well.

  2. me says:

    When I get one of those curious, yet stern, stares by the Chinese walking past me on the street, I just wave and say “你好!” and then their serious demeanor often gives way to a smile, laugh, or giggle that they can’t hold back. The stare-at-a-foreigner thing still exists, but how often do they really see anyone other than Han-Chinese? I simply enjoy using ”你好!“ as a way of breaking down the awkwardness and saying “yes, I know you’re staring at me.” It also hopefully helps ease away any assumptions they may have about foreigners being unfriendly.

  3. Hello has turned into almost a dirty word. I don’t respond to it. I’ve missed a few genuinely friendly hello’s that way, and even a good friend trying to get my attention. I suggested he call my name next time, because if you shout “Hello” I will make a point not to even make eye contact. Feels too much like a cat-call most of the time. 90% of the hello-ers I get are 16-35 yr. old men…

  4. Jonathan Lau says:

    Unfortunately, it is not just a China thing.There are few places in the world where you can be the minority and still be accepted.

  5. Vertu says:

    Tom: another bullseye. Sharon: you’d get to know very quickly the variety of hellos and their meanings. Eeto. . . This was the one thing that irritated me most, more than the ubiquitous loud spitting, more than the attempts at cheating, more than the casual littering. The hello. I used to swear, i’ve shoved people over it for sure. Any regrets about that? A little. But i’m with liu xiaobo in that i seriously believe what needed to happen was for the british to take over china for a century or three and teach them some manners. Like with hong kong. There’s just no excuse for china.

  6. I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I’m not so sure I agree with you. I’ve been going to China for over 25 years, including a 3 1/2 year stint from 2006-2010. When I was in college and spending a year in Tianjin in 1986-87, I remember being highly sensitive to people staring at me and some of the ignorant and sometimes partly ill-willed ways they greeted me. I remember even writing a Chinese poem about it in my diary that was too hostile and full of self-pity to be a good poem. Fortunately I never showed it to anyone. I suppose it has gotten better in big cities over time, but I feel that I have changed too, so that I don’t really pay much attention to it anymore. I think it is hard for us (I mean Westerners) to imagine how Chinese perceive us; it’s a tangled mess of internalized ideology, fear, curiosity, and excitement, depending on the Chinese person’s level of contact with foreigners, level of education, and social environment. For me, learning how to fit well into the niche of possibilities that a foreigner can occupy in Chinese society with a minimum of frustration and negativity, without either self-censoring or buying into cliches and stereotypes (both ways), is an art worth attempting to master. Sometimes I still find “Halloooo,” spitting, cutting lines etc. annoying, but I’m not particularly proud of it.

  7. Tracy Santos says:

    Just got back from a trip to China and I wish I had read this article before I went. Sure, people stared, but my husband and I spent time in some non-touristy areas, so that was to be expected. There were two different times, though, that I was asked to be in a photo with someone at touristy sites – once at the Forbidden City and once at the Shanghai World Financial Center. I didn’t take offense. I figured these people were from smaller towns and had never seen laowai. I have a friendly bearing, too, so maybe they felt comfortable enough to ask to take a picture as compared to just staring at me/us.

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