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.