Laowai is the informal Chinese word for foreigner
by Ava Ming: My Oriental Life
China really is a strange animal. Exotic, esoteric and enigmatic in turns, its Chinese-ness can be so overwhelming it appears to be supplanting your own personal memories of home, almost.
In the Beginning
My first two months here were very hard. I stepped off the plane right into 5,000 years of history and felt totally unearthed, as if I was floating while desperately looking for something stable to cling onto. Some days would be wonderful, the marvels of China evident in every experience. Other days I’d be seriously wondering why I was here and counting the days till I could go home. It was a real roller-coaster. Each morning I woke up wondering whether I was going to have a good China day or a bad one. It was simply impossible to predict which way the cookie would crumble. Meeting other Laowai (foreigners) helped me to realise that feeling unsettled was normal. Apparently it can take several years for foreigners in China to shift onto an even keel and not everyone makes it.
Things I’ve Had to Get Used to
Eating several different dishes from bowls and saucers small enough to hold in my hand instead of having all of the food put onto one dinner plate. Frustrating. There’s more, lots more, but I’ll save those for other posts otherwise this one will be very, very, very (once more with feeling), very long.
Listening to English, Speaking Chinese
Once a week a brave local will ask me if they can practice their English despite their obvious nerves due to fear of making a mistake. As an English teacher it’s normal for me to be patient but conversely, if a foreigner’s Chinese is less than passable some customer service assistants will complain about you while you’re standing right there in front of them. They’ll also comment on your hair, clothes and figure while trying to guess your age.
I’ve been followed around clothes stores by other shoppers and even had clothing pulled right out of my hand so they can examine my choices. I guess I’m an unlikely fashion leader in China. I’ve even been trailed into restaurants because if I’m eating it (as a foreigner) then, apparently, the food must taste good.
It’s hard to top the old aunty who sifted through my shopping basket of vegetables, while I was still holding it and then called her daughter to look too. Which part of her brain told her it would be okay to do that to my stuff? Through the haze of my disbelief, I told her to ‘qu, ba!’ Go away. Not exactly polite talk towards an elder, but what did she expect, really?
We Do Have a Winner
Top of the list is being stared at ALL THE TIME. If you’re a foreigner who looks half decent, man, woman, black or white, you WILL be stared at with a capital S. They watch you reading, eating, standing still, walking, staring into space. You’d think that by now I’d be used to it but it will always bother me.
And then there’s the touching. Young women touch my arms and face. One even leant her head against my upper chest and stayed there for several seconds before casually walking away! Complete strangers put their babies on my lap (while I’m eating!) and, whilst in the supermarket, one man prompted his son to ‘go and talk to aunty she’s from Africa’, while pointing at me with his thumb. The looks are never malicious, just curious, but oh so wearying. I often wish for the luxury of a full day when I can go about my business without being stared at like I’m an alien.
What to do if this happens to you
Despite its huge technological and financial advances China is still a developing country with the vast majority of people having little or no contact with foreigners, so of course they’ll be surprised to see you among them. Staring and inappropriate personal contact is part of the culture, they also do it to each other. Sometimes a smile is all that’s necessary to diffuse the uncomfortable feeling but if this doesn’t work, look the other way and be polite in your response. You’ve been received as a guest in a foreign land and you probably won’t be here forever so enjoy all of it from the frustrating to the wonderful.