On being a Foreigner

15 Feb 2003

It’s been said before, by different people, in various ways, from multiple angles. but it’s such an inseparable part of the expat experience here that I thought I’d share again. So, from behind the Great Firewall of China without further ado, the words of Sam:

I should note that laowai is Chinese for ‘foreigner’ and heard several hundred times a day in various tones: respectful – I understand it is meant to be a respectful term; amazed – not too irritating this one; demanding: (‘hey, you, respond now.‘); amused – I hate that one, doesn’t everyone hate being laughed at?; and finally, matter-of-fact – just the word that floats to your ear in a conversation of passers by (‘oh look, there’s a foreigner!’, in the tone you might use to point out a six-foot pigeon). I’ve written loads on this on days when it’s annoyed me most but it’s back on my PC in far-away Xining. Sometimes it’s charming and friendly, don’t get me wrong, but the line between that and fists-clenching-in-the pocket shifts depending on mood, temperament and how long you’ve been here. Ironically, it’s when you’re in a bad mood, hungover or similar that you get so many more comments and “hello”s. Then you start asking yourself: “Am I here for your amusement, eh? Did I come here so you could take the piss? Eh?”

I can definitely identify.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

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