Flow Like Water: A Foreigner’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Beijing
Being a foreigner in China comes with a unique set of advantages and challenges.
I’ve had opportunities to do some really cool things in this country just because I’m foreign, but I also have to face up to stereotypes that Chinese have of foreigners, pointing and staring, and people talking about me not only behind my back but right next to me because they assume I can’t understand.
Some days are better than others, but most days I let these things wash over me and I don’t let them stick. That’s the only way to survive and thrive in this place.
This is a long post but I urge you to read through to the end. Particularly if you’re considering coming to China and even if you already live here.
Let’s get it on.
First, An Example Of What Not To Do
I almost got into a fight last night.
A Chinese man in his fifties or sixties didn’t want my two friends and I to stand by his door in North Luo Gu Alley (北锣鼓巷) simply because we were holding beers and he thought we were drunk and likely to cause trouble. When we didn’t leave immediately he started grabbing our arms, shoving his finger in our faces, and putting his hands on us. Things really escalated when it looked like he was about to go after my friend’s girlfriend, a Chinese girl.
His son came out and rather than trying to disarm the situation he got right into it and began grabbing and shouting just like his dad. I would be inclined to do the same thing I suppose if I walked into a situation I didn’t understand and saw two young guys squaring off against my father, but it only added oil to the fire.
They were shouting things like “This is China!” and “You better remember this!” and finally we managed to extricate ourselves from the situation as they hurled insults down the alley after us.
This man was wrong to treat us as he did. He was even more wrong when he started putted his hands on us. Even still, the right thing to do was to simply excuse ourselves and walk away.
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones…
…but words will only hurt you if you let them.
Being able to speak Chinese enables me to overhear all kinds of things. Most of what people say about me is harmless. They comment on my height, call me handsome (hard to be offended by that), or simply point out the fact that I’m a foreigner (“Hey, look at the foreigner!”).
Other times they make ignorant assumptions (“You’re foreign, you must have money!”) and talk about me like I’m not there–even after having spoken Chinese with them already. The other day I went to the market to buy eggs and two Chinese merchants in the market were giving a play-by-play report of everything I did as I picked up eggs, saying things like “Look, the foreigner’s only buying five eggs!” (I actually bought over twenty eggs, I only had five in my bag at the time).
Another area where problems can occur is how blunt the Chinese can be when talking about appearance. My Chinese co-workers never fail to comment on my appearance if my skin is a little red one day (“Why is your skin so red?”) or if a pimple has sprouted on my face (“Your fire is up. You should do A, B, C.”). This is a cultural thing that takes some getting used to. They are often frank with each other as well, commenting on gaining/losing weight, skin problems, and other such things.
In general these kinds of comments aren’t meant to hurt but they can add up over time. Some days I just want to live my life without anyone noticing me or saying anything about me. It can be obnoxious when I can’t walk down the street without someone making a comment.
One Bad Apple Can Ruin The Bunch
When trying to understand why Chinese people act the way they do towards foreigners, we have to zoom out and look at the bigger picture.
I read an article this morning just before writing this post about a Chinese woman who stood in the Shenzhen airport with a sign warning Chinese women not to get involved with foreigners. Apparently her American ex-husband of three years had been stealing from her and cheating on her the whole time they were together.
And that’s just one example.
You don’t have to look hard to find other examples of foreigners acting the fool and ruining things for everyone else. The thing is, we’re just as guilty of this in the United States. Look at how we treat African Americans in the United States for a perfect example of how us Americans are also guilty of applying blanket stereotypes to an entire race of people because of a few bad eggs.
Modern day issues with foreigners aside, we must also consider the past as China has a long history and a longer memory. They haven’t forgotten that an Eight Nation Alliance carved up their beloved kingdom, razed their palaces, and plundered their riches.
Don’t Carry the Hurt In Your Heart
If you’re a foreigner, you’re going to be treated differently in China. You’re not Chinese and you never will be. There are only two exceptions to this rule: if you’re foreign-born Chinese or if you’re Da Shan (a Canadian man who’s been in China since the 1980s).
I’ve met more than a few foreigners who have developed anger and contempt for China and the Chinese during the time they’ve spent here. There are a lot of things to dislike about this country, but there are many things to like about this country too.
The Chinese people are, by and large, a warm and fun-loving people. The old men I like to sit down and chat with in my alley neighborhood are evidence of this. I’m consistently amazed by the generosity and caring nature of my Chinese friends and co-workers.
If you love this country then it will love you back, but loving this country means that you must take the good with the bad.
The Double Standard
Foreigners in China are held to a higher standard, or at least a different one. As a foreigner in China, you’re automatically a C-List celebrity in many respects. People will notice you, stare at you, talk about you, point at you, occasionally take pictures of/with you, and treat you differently. They won’t always notice when you do things right (sometimes they will), but they will always notice when you do things wrong.
Foreign companies are similarly held to a higher standard. Lipton tea got in trouble just a couple weeks ago for providing products of lesser quality in China than they do elsewhere–even though their products meet Chinese regulations for quality (which just so happen to be lower than elsewhere). McDonald’s got in trouble when an undercover journalist got video of them picking a piece of meat up off the floor and putting it onto a sandwich that was sold to a customer. (Side note: that journalist had to wait six months to get one piece of dirt on McD’s.)
It’s not just Chinese people judging you either; foreigners judge other foreigners too. Apart from this incident, the only other problem I’ve had with anyone in China was with a British guy who didn’t like me just because I was American.
You can be a straight-A student 364 days out of the year and no one will think anything of it. Then that day comes when you get a C and people will say, “See, I knew all along he was just a C-level student.”
This is precisely why I’m very disappointed in myself for the way I handled the situation last night. There were no winners in that situation. We walked away angry and offended over the way we’d been treated, and I’m sure not just those two Chinese guys but everyone else who saw what went down either had their perception of foreigners damaged or reinforced by our behavior.
Flow Like Water
In conclusion, you can’t let these things stick to you. Flow like water that runs around and through the rocks, rapids, and fallen logs that would make for you a treacherous path.
The important thing is that there’s a lesson to learn here.
Next time I’ll do a better job of turning the other cheek. Next time I’ll excuse myself politely and walk away. Next time I’ll save the attitude for later when I’m commiserating with friends.
I hope next time never comes.
**Image courtesy of milesmilo on Flickr.com