Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Laowai Rock Star Complex

If you are foreign, male, young to middle-aged, and not hideously ugly, then you will notice several things that will occur to and around you in China. These things will become apparent within mere days of your arrival in China. *Disclaimer: I don't know how it works being a foreign woman in China, so I can't comment on that.*

- People will look at you. A lot. Especially if you are under the age of 35 and are wearing tasteful clothes. Depending on where you are in China, older people will look at you with a semi-confused, somewhat vacant stare. Young people will examine you meticulously. Boys will analyze your fashion sense and athleticism, sometimes whispering an observation about you to their pals and then laughing loudly. Girls will look initially surprised to see you, then will smile self-consciously but will not break eye contact. When you pass, they will whisper and giggle behind your back.
- You will become an object of gossip at your place of employment, especially if you work as a foreign teacher. If you are single, you will be continually quizzed about what kind of girl you like, and the more brazen young women will try their hand at flirting with you. If you are attached or married, you will be continually quizzed about your significant other, such as how you met her, where she comes from, whether or not she can speak English, etc. You will probably still encounter flirting even if it is common knowledge that you are not available.
- People will ask to take photos with you, sometimes on the street and with people you've never met. More often than not, these offers will be made by teenagers, both boys and girls.
- When you walk into a restaurant, you will be greeted by the customary throng of hostesses, but you will notice that the hostess will pay close attention to you, often setting your place and pouring your tea first. If you request where to find the restroom, they will often escort you.
- In a club or bar, random people will come up and want to drink with you. The people who do this can often speak a little English, but even if they can't they will still be very happy to share a drink with you.
- You will be asked to participate in special events- school functions, opening ceremonies, possibly even television programs. You will also be solicited for photo sessions for promotions and advertisements.
- You will have an abundance of women's attention and offers of affection.
- You will be treated as an honored guest at meals and parties.
- People will go out of their way to accommodate and assist you.

Now, all this sounds wonderful, and it is. But I've noticed, in my own life and in those of my fellow expats, a tendency to assume that our status as foreigners opens every door. It's easy to assume that everyone wants to be our friend, that everyone has time to help us with our issues, that every woman is fair game, that every duty we perform will be met with a smile and a nod. But I have noticed a fair amount of irritation among Chinese people at the arrogant foreigners who swagger around like kings and speak contemptuously of this land they feel they possess. This sense of entitlement can grow into pride and pomp, looking down on China as simply a place to exploit for easy money, cheap labor, and carnal pleasures. I think it is important for expats in China to remember that we are all guests and we are not entitled to anything except fair treatment and hospitality. As the concept of the "exotic foreigner" loses its mystique, I think an attitude of respect and diligence will outweigh the diminishing awe of a "mysterious traveler from a land far, far away."


Kevin said...

Some parts of China are very different to others. I live in Beijing and only relate to about 20% of what you said; I guess as the rest of the country gets more developed they'll develop the same lack of interest as people here (I consider this a good thing; I don't think I could stand being always being the centre of attention like that).

Clark said...

Boy, 20% sounds nice. I live in Changzhou, and all of that rings true for foreigners here.