Being a “Laowai” in China

Stand out umbrella

There are many observations that I have made over the past 4 years living in China, including my several short trips back and forth, as a foreigner, or ‘Laowai’ in China. First and foremost, I must say how much I love living here, as well as how much of an honor it is to be among the Chinese people. Especially here in the Henan Province, people are very kind and quite hospitable. Maybe this friendliness comes from from the famous quote from Confucius, ‘Is it not delightful to have friends come from afar!’ Who knows.

Living in China has its ups and downs. There are days when I am completely immersed in the culture and madly in love with her ways; however, there are those days that I would rather stay inside and not see her face. (I am talking about China here, not my wife.) I will try to clearly state some of the advantages and disadvantages of being a foreigner in China.

Advantage 1:You are a celebrity. Everywhere you go, people notice you and many times, they would love to be friends with you. Students are generally excited about taking your class (unless their English level is low), and they treat you with a ton of respect. You get a lot of preferential treatment as a foreigner in China.

Disadvantage 1:You are a celebrity. I know, I know, it is the same as the advantage; although you must admit, sometimes an advantage is a disadvantage. (It makes me think of some of the kids I went to High School. They would have high grades on EVERYTHING, but because of that, they were alienated by their peers.) You can’t go nowhere without being noticed. Everyone stares at you (which isn’t always that annoying), and you can’t even go to the market for apples without feeling like you are constantly being watched. Coming from a culture where it is rude to stare, it can get very awkward when strangers are staring at me for an extended period of time. Yes, I know, they are curious. Do I blame them? No. I think if I had never seen a Chinese person before and I was walking around in my hometown, I wouldn’t be able to keep my eyes off of them either. Does it get annoying? Yes. Do I get over it quickly? Yes.

Advantage 2:Getting to know the Chinese people. I have rarely met a Chinese person that I didn’t immediately like. They are kind, generous and honest (sometimes TOO honest). Learning about Chinese culture and history straight from the source is awesome. As a teacher, I can say I have learned more in these past four years than I think I did in my whole 4 years at University (which is kind of sad, but at least I am learning!) A friendship with a Chinese person is truly a friendship that you will cherish and want to keep for the rest of your life.

Disadvantage 2: Language. I am not sure if the Chinese people completely realize it or not, but Mandarin is easily the hardest language in the world to le arn. I have never been very good at language learning; although when I do get it, my pronunciation is usually quite good. I have tried studying Chinese, but it does get frustrating, as does learning any foreign language. I can read around 500-600 Chinese words and my spoken is not great, but I do seem to understand a lot of what is said around me (I just need to get better at regurgitating the things I have learned.) Learning the language isn’t my biggest issue about the language. It is what I do understand that I don’t enjoy. Being a foreigner, people are constantly talking about me, even when I am right next to them. They say ‘He doesn’t know Chinese’ and then they continue with things like ‘Oh, he is so fat, he should lose weight’ and other things that I won’t repeat. It could be cross-cultural miscommunication, but from my point of view, it just seems rude. Just because I am a laowai, doesn’t mean I don’t understand you. How would you like it if someone was talking about you like that in front of you, and you had to act like it was ok? I know I am fat, sure. Do I care? No.

Advantage 3: People will bend over backwards for you. Aforementioned, the Chinese people are extremely hospitable. They will go out of their way to make sure you are provided for and taken care of by the best of the best. They will feed you, clothe you, make sure you sleep well, cure whatever ails you… and they will ask for nothing in return. (Not that you shouldn’t return the favor; you should always return the favor.) I have never met people who care so much for others in my whole life. Dependable. Caring. Warmhearted. Awesome.

Disadvantage 3: Being taken advantage of. This happens in a lot of countries as a foreigner, so it is not just China-specific. I have come to the realization that I am a big ol’ Laowai and that there is nothing that will change that. Do I hate being a Laowai? No way. Do I wish some people didn’t notice me as a Laowai? OH YES. I envy Chinese Americans who come here. No one knows that they are American! Anyway, to the point of being taken advantage of. I considered China to be my home. I visit America to see my friends and family, and I get homesick for my little old city in the Henan province. (Home is where the heart is I suppose.) Anywhere I go I am a ‘tourist’. No one knows I live here, so they assume I am a traveler who is an easy money machine that is ready to start spitting out bills! They offer me overpriced rides in taxis, Chinese ‘relics’ and art or wall-hangings at prices that are easily 5x or more than what they would charge the Chinese nationals. I understand it, I do. It is an interesting feeling though… calling a place home, yet never being treated as if you belong. I don’t fall for those cheats because I know better. I know all of the bus and subways routes to take before I get to any major city. If someone wants my money, I tell them I live in Zhengzhou, and they generally laugh at me and walk away. (I don’t get paid a lot. Luckily I love what I do.) I have actually received a ‘Zhengzhou teacher discount’ in Beijing before! Haha.

These three are just a few of many. If you want to know more, let me know! If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask or comment.

“Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart.”

~Ed Koch

Meet the author

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Jonathan Watts is a Public Speaking and Oral English Instructor at Sias University. Jonathan studied Radio and Television Broadcasting at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach Florida, where he met his wife, Lee Watts, who is also an Oral English Instructor. Jonathan first visited Sias in 2005, and he immediately fell in love with Sias, China, and Chinese people (and of course, Chinese food). Jonathan and Lee are on their 7th year teaching at Sias, and they have a son, Harrison, who was born in China, and a daughter, Eloise. Jonathan enjoys playing bass guitar, ukulele, and singing. He loves taking bike rides around town with his family.

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