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Lets state the obvious, I’m not from around here

Chinese has a few common phrases that are used to mean “foreigner” one is laowai (老外) meaning literally old-outsider, and the other is waiguoren (外国人) meaning outside-country-person. These phrases are both considered neutral. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just a fact, and Chinese people enjoy stating the obvious (on a rainy day you will hear people under umbrellas telling other people under umbrellas that it is raining).

Waiguoren is attached to all foreigners: North and South Americans, Europeans, Australians, Africans, all are lumped together into a single homogeneous “other”. This is not to say that there is no racism, or stereotypes attached to people from separate countries, but as we walk past people on the street, “waiguoren” is what they shout as their children point at us.

When you are a “waiguoren” people never seem to accept the fact that you have been in China for more than a couple of days. This is highlighted often at banquets when I am introduced to someone new.

Them: How long have you been in China?

Me: Four years.

Them: Can you use Chopsticks?

Me: Yes. If I couldn’t use chopsticks I would be thinner.

Them: Yes you would be, you look a little fat now (this actually happens). Can you speak Chinese?

Me:  我会说中文 (I can speak Chinese).

Them: Say 你好(ni hao), it means hello.

“Waiguoren” and “hello” are the constant reminders that I am not like them. This is what is really lying just under the surface. Despite all my years living in China, all the effort put into studying the language, reading all the books about Chinese culture, I will never be accepted as part of the Chinese community.

Last year, when I was working in Chengdu, I had brought a 15-year-old student to his head teacher’s office for smoking. He was furious with me. He shouted to the teacher, in such a terrible mix of Chinese and broken English that I can no longer remember which he was using, “This is China. He is a waiguoren. He cannot tell us Chinese what to do. This is China.” This hurt so much to hear. After being in his school for nearly a year, I was seen as a person who had no power or say in anything that happened there.

This idea applies to many situations outside of work too. I often talk about problems I see in China, not as an attack, but out of hope that China will improve. I think most of you are aware that when I am in the States, I also talk about the problems facing the US (again out of hope). When this discussion starts here in China though people assume I am criticizing China just as a waiguoren, and I am told that I don’t really understand China.

I guess though this is the reality for most of the people in China, who long for a voice in their future, I’m just reminded of it in a more open way.


10 Comments

  1. Bill says:

    Ah, memories! It is amazing how little some things have changed in 20+ years.

  2. Seven says:

    The 15-year-old smoker was being ridiculous, or more precisely, being a baby.

  3. Chopstik says:

    Ah, now there is something to which I can relate very clearly. And it does not matter if the comments are made in China or outside of China. The reactions of many (most?) Chinese are as you describe.

  4. I so appreciate your blog to have a realistic view of what my beloved China is really like to live in. On the other hand, I also feel sad as I do not seem to pick up why you actually love the country, what you like about it or any reasons as to why you are still there after all the injustices and downsides you are talking about?

    • Tom says:

      It’s hard at times to explain exactly what I love about China, and I think after next week you’ll get a better understanding of what changed for me. It’s something like the feeling I had when Bush was in office, I didn’t like the government, but I still loved my country.

      • Tom says:

        The things I love are the people, the traveling, and the culture, but that doesn’t really capture everything. I love the way an eager student will stay after class to ask more about why President Obama is bombing Libya, or finding a quiet perfect park where everything seems to be in balance. I love walking through a museum and looking at one of dozens of 2,000 year old pots. I love walking into a Daoist temple and being greeted by the sound of chanting as it would have been hundreds of years ago. I love not always knowing what part or even which animal is being served at dinner.
        In short, I love the endless adventures that wait for me here.

    • Westlake says:

      I didn’t love the government, but I still love the country. if I can extend it to: I love the Chinese people, but I hate those people.
      Those who made the country uneven, divided society into classes and committed foul things on poor people are also genuine Chinese (I think you see a lot of this category), even those who once came from poor class.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi

    I just stumbled on your blog. It’s dead on and very true!
    I have lived in China for 5 years next month.

    Thank you for your blog. Helps me to know I’m not the only one 🙂

    Miranda

  6. […] One of my first posts on this blog focused on the idea of being a waiguoren (外国人), an “outside country person”, and the fact that a foreigner can never be fully accepted in China. Today though, we’ll be looking at the idea of a waicunren (外村人), an “outside village person”, and how it presents new challenges in an increasingly mobile China. […]

  7. Martin says:

    I am from Holland, and the last 5 years I have lived in Belgium and China. Holland and Belgium are two small countries in Europe, lying right next to eachother, with free traffic of people and materials, and the cultures are very similar, the people look alike. And yet, I too, will never be one of the Belgians. I will always remain the outside-country-person, in this case “the Dutch guy”.

    I share your feelings about always remaining the outside-country-person in China too. But if even the Belgians, as friendly neighbors of the Dutch, are unable to accept me as one of them, it’s hard to blame the Chinese for not being able to do so.

    Same goes the other way around. In Holland, it doesn’t matter if you, and your parents, and even your grandparents are born inside the country, if – by looks – your roots lie in some outside-country, you will always remain a migrant, and you will never be fully considered ‘Dutch’, no matter how hard you try. If this is any different in the U.S., then the U.S. can be considered an exception.

    I too have been told that I “don’t understand China”, but I don’t feel the need to take that personally. Unless I am mistaken and really do not undestand China, this sentence is just an excuse to end the discussion, perhaps even for the reason that not I, but the Chinese person saying it, is taking things personal or feels his patriotic heart shrivel with pain.

    Even though I am slightly ashamed by it, I like China (and for example Guatemala) so much because it is easier for me to ‘be someone’. In my own country, or in Belgium, everyone looks white, everyone has a good education, and noone can be regarded as a representative from a country that is higher than mine in the world order. That makes me no more interesting than anyone else walking around. In China, this is very different. There, I am white, exotic, rich and altogether very interesting, and I don’t have to do anything for it, only perhaps show my white skin and blonde hair and speak a few words in Chinese or a different language.

    I admit this is changing. There seem to be more and more Chinese who look down upon me as a foreigner – just like many Western people do. I can only hope this will not be pushed to extremes in the future, but for now, I am actually glad there is a bit more counterbalance to those who look up to me without good reason.

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