Laowai 4ever!

The other day I had to catch a taxi into town, and pulling off of ZhouShan Dong Road traffic was somewhat congested. As we were slowed to a crawl, the driver frantically looking for a hole in traffic he could dart through, my gaze fell on two women on a bike. One was pedalling, the other was sitting on the rack in back, facing the road. I couldn’t hear her, but when she saw me I could easily read the words her lips spoke to her friend: “There’s a laowai over there.” A foreigner.

Of course, this kind of incident is a daily occurrence. I caught her eyes and raised my eyebrows, communicating, “Yes, I am a laowai, and I understood what you just said.” She blushed, covered her mouth, and tucked her head behind her friend, no doubt recounting this shocking development. I’m getting better at that look.

To live in China is to be constantly reminded that you are a foreigner, that you are different, and that you don’t really belong here. When I say we foreigners don’t “belong” here, I’m not saying we’re unwelcome. Sometimes we are very welcome. It’s just that we don’t belong.

This idea is communicated in many different ways. One way is that it’s difficult to have conversations with new people that aren’t centered on where I’m from, why I’m here, how long I’ve been here, how much I make, if I’m used to Chinese food, etc. If you’re a foreigner, that’s simply what everyone wants to talk to you about. Every now and then I’ll meet someone new and have an entirely normal conversation that is completely unconnected to the fact that I’m a foreigner. When that happens, it’s so refreshing, and I just feel so grateful for being treated not just as a foreigner, but just as a person. And it’s absurd that I should have those feelings. I guess you could say I’m finally understanding what it’s like to be a minority, and that minorities in the USA have similar experiences, but I still think it’s different.

Of course, the other way the idea is communicated is a little more bluntly. The stares. People yelling, “Hello!” and then laughing if you turn to look. People feeling the need to alert everyone in the vicinity that a laowai has entered the scene. People talking about you right next to you on the bus, assuming you understand nothing.

This is all part of life in China, and it must be accepted. But what’s really hard to accept is the fact that China will continue on like this, no matter how good my Chinese gets. I don’t know, I guess it’s stupid, but I know that one day I’m going to be speaking more than good Chinese–I’m going to be speaking kickass Chinese–and that in return for that accomplishment I should get treated normally. That if enough time passes, Chinese people should get used to me. It’s absurd, but somewhere in the back of my mind, there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to that day. And that day is simply never going to come.


John Pasden

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


  1. it is very different from being a minority in the USA or Europe, nobody expectsh the minority not to speak the common language.
    Actually I can’t wait for my chinese boyfriend to come with me in Europe and be so surprised that shop attendants address him in French in France, in Spanish in Spain, in German in Germany, just as if he were a local.
    Probably China is not as bad as Japan or any other country in Asia, at least China has excuses because they have been so isolated for so long.
    In Japan, if you sit next to a Japanese in the bus while there is still another empty seat, the Japanese you just sat next to will get up to sit somewhere else and leave the seat next to you free.
    In Japan, when you enter a lift, every time, a few people who had at first not prepared to get off will get off and take the next lift up, rather than spend any more time stuck next to the foreigner in the lift.

  2. After 9 years in Korea and 4 in China, I could have written the OP. I was always delighted at the rare person who just spoke Chinese/Korean to me and didn’t compliment me on my proficiency or ask “foreigner” questions. If I am not in a large city, then I cut the locals a lot of slack; after all, most have probably never had personal contact with a foreigner.

    A Chinese woman acquaintance in Illinois answered that she was from “suburban Philadelphia” when I asked where she was from. I don’t normally ask this question, but since I had lived in China, I wanted to establish a connection. She does not have a green card; she is a married foreign student who hopes to reside here. I was amused at her response. Having lived in Philadelphia for two years while earning an MA does not make one “from Philadelphia.”

    I have visited Japan but never lived there. Some of my colleagues who had spent time in Japan had experiences similar to Seb’s. I myself was turned away from a guesthouse near Todai. A sign in Chinese characters outside read “you fang,” but when I inquired in Japanese about a room, the man wouldn’t even look at me or speak. He just kept shaking his head, even after I pointed to the sign. I had also heard that some bathhouses will not admit foreigners on the excuse that foreigners don’t know Japanese bathhouse etiquette. I had never experienced or heard about this kind of discrimination in Korea although Koreans are not colorblind and do discriminate against English teachers of color.

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: November 5, 2005 at 1:31 am


    That’s an interesting story, though what do you mean by “teachers of color”?

    The Japanese are certainly a presence in Asia. In Bangkok, there are bathhouses/whorehouses that only cater to Japanese tourists; no one else is allowed. The Thais get all dressed up in kimonos and what not. It reminds me of the Japanese-taking-the-over paranoia in Crichton’s Rising Sun–all these exclusive Japanese venues!

  4. “Of color” is PC for “non-white.” I find the term a bit silly since even us palefaces do have color; we’re not really white.

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: November 5, 2005 at 3:44 am


    Exactly. I find the term totally silly and rather offensive. It’s just degrees of melanin, after all. The ethnic terms have all been made in Europe in the old days with “white” undoubtedly used to aggrandize Westerners (just like Europe’s not its own continent but just part of Asia). It’s unfortunate that the rest of the world started using those terms too! That’s why I’ll never use “white” or “yellow” but instead “pink” and “golden,” cuz dammit, I’m Asian, and if anyone’s color is going to be glorified, it’d better be mine.

  6. I think “of color” was coined by Americans whose ancestors did not come from Europe, so don’t blame us white folks.

  7. 我认为这同中国的农耕文化有很大关系,千百年来,自给自足,或是日出而作,日落而归,这种文化渊源让中国人很难接受说流利中文的外国人,不是有句话说中国人天不怕地不怕,就怕外国人说中国话.

  8. Wow, now that I can understand Chinese writing, I think I need somebody to help me understand Chinese logic.

  9. Lim Ni Eng Says: May 28, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    I think what MengMu meant was that China’s strong agricultural background has developed in its citizens’ psyche an emphasis on self-sufficiency (a natural development of this would be the tendency to reject outside influence), and in extreme circumstances, the predisposition for enclosed and restricted communal society. In this sense, a foreigner speaking fluent Chinese may be viewed as having abruptly intruded onto a sacred piece of heritage.

    Personally, I think this reading may be stretching it too far. It’s just that most Chinese still lack a global perspective. As more Chinese cities develop, I think the situation will improve. Look at Shanghai and Shenzhen, I believe the citizenry there would be more receptive of Mandarin-speaking Laowai.

  10. shan Says: July 20, 2007 at 7:51 am

    回楼主的话,你在中国的感受和我在英国留学三年的感受如出一辙,其实人都是一样的,就是有本能的排外,不过根据我对中国人的了解,中国人还是很容易接受新的事物,所以他们对你应该是好奇和友好远远大于排斥.相比中国人对老外的了解,英国人应该对中国人存在很大的偏见,或者英国一直以来对亚洲人了解甚少.至少英国的政府对中国人在政策上不是鼓励态度,当然除了对我这种自费留学生白花花的英镑还是很欢迎的.很多英国人问我的问题可以说是幼稚的,比如说听说你们中国人吃小孩,是不是真的,等等.让我觉得非常的无奈.最令人不爽的是,为什么本地人会在街上对着很无辜的我(或者我的朋友们)喊:"滚回中国去..."我觉得我出离愤怒了.有些英国人觉得中国就是一个贫瘠的地方,落后的地方,共产党控制下的人都是愚昧的,都是政治狂热分子.他们分不清中国人和日本人或者和其他亚裔的区别.当然我不是说英国人大多数都是这样的,总体来说英国的绅士淑女还是很友好,但是无论怎样,可以轻易的从他们的眼中读到:你是个外国人.最经常的骚扰是本地的孩子和青少年追着我满街乱跑,盯着我看,围着我议论,而且用一种很不友好的喊话方式说:"ni hao"(你好).在正常人的眼里,只有在生气的时侯才会用那种天知道什么口气跟人打招呼说hi.也许有些人纯属出于好奇,但是我更希望他们尊重我,作为一个被尊重的人,不要因为我的外表和他们不同,会处处受到无端的骚扰,即便在街上行走都不可避免.所以Lim Ni Eng 说most Chinese still lack a global perspective,我不能苟同,在英国的经历,我没有感到任何的传说中的 global perspective.缺乏对别人的了解是人的相通之处而已,文化和语言的隔阂更容易造成好奇,误解或者排斥.

  11. 说真的,怎么讲呢?可以这么理解吧: 一个新入嫁的媳妇,如果长期婆婆对她很好的话,可能他会更加挑剔,要么觉得婆婆罗嗦,要么觉得自己高高在上, 但是如果婆婆离开一段时间后她才知道婆婆的好, 或者她改嫁了,嫁到一个凶恶的婆婆家她才会想要是还有机会享受原来的生活该多好. 中国有句话就是入乡随俗, 其实很多中国人在国外都很努力的融入到当地生活中,无奈不被当地人接受, 比如德国,英国,等等,大家都觉得中国人太如猛虎野兽.相反,外国人来到中国以后尽管中国人热情欢迎,可是他们任就有很多不乐意接受的地方, 中国正处文化盛世之时,外邦还在茹毛饮血. 英国带来的近代文明改变了整个世界, 而中国要说真正的发展也是在这20几年左右的时间, 人口基数那么大, 我们做了多大的努力才有今天相对丰富的物质生活,
    才学会慢慢去和世界上其他一些发达国家的某些东西靠拢, 这个都是需要时间和过程的…..JOHN说, 这种情况还会继续GO ON 下去, 是的, 我们还会GO ON这种 “不太懂礼节”的情况, 你说的各种幽雅的, 得体的沟通方式 我们没有办法马上就让全民素质都提高到如你所期望的这样. 你是不知道我们国家表面很多高楼大厦,其实背后很多老百姓的生活都很困苦. 中国摆在面前的仍然是物质文明和精神文明一起抓的任务, 而物质文明目前而言还是很重要, 包括保险,健康等问题……我们要做的事情太多了…….

  12. 不好意思跑题了, 如果JOHN在中国生活了7年,你写的这个文章让我的理解就是 ” 我在中国生活了七年,做为老外我很受欢迎,可是中国人怎么就不知道怎么对待一个老外呢?” 7年了, 不短的时间,我也觉得你很不容易,但是我不知道你内心是感到厌倦得想逃跑呢还是觉得被吹捧得不想逃跑了呢? 如果我在英国德国被人天天恶言相对,我是不会呆下去的, 讲个笑话都没人听得懂呢,还混?
    楼上的兄弟在国外被人追得满街跑我表示同情,我没有遇到过这个情况,在德国警告过一个的士司机 (一看就知道我第一来柏林,他开着车饶着柏林一大圈,花了 80欧才到目的地,后来回程才20 EUR, 因为是酒店的签约司机,所以投诉了),我不会觉得来到高度发达的德国我就到了天堂,开车宰客绝对不应该”GLOBAL”化, 但是全球都有人在做这个”GLOBAL”的事情, 但是我也绝对不会觉得每次被德国司机问中国的情况就觉得烦恼, (可能是时间短吧), 一句话,没有完美的地方吧. 世界不正是因为有文化的差异才让人有不同的奇妙之旅吗? GLOBAL在这个时候放一下也无妨.

  13. I was thinking we laowai should get cards printed up, English one side, Chinese on the other, that said something to the effect of:

    “When you point, stare, laugh, talk about me thinking I cannot possibly understand, and even shout “Hello” just because I am foreign, I feel like an animal in the zoo. But I’m not an animal at the zoo, I’m a real person, just like you. Let’s all try to treat each other with respect.”

    My Chinese isn’t up to translating it, but once we have the text in Chinese, it’s so cheap to get a few hundred cards printed up. Anybody up for it?

  14. I am a native Venezuelan and have been living in California for the past 14 years. I am now and American citizen and believe have integrated to the American humor and life style; however, when I meet new people invariably they ask me about my accent. Then the next questions are if I like the US and if I want to go back to South America. I guess have gotten accustomed to this type of interaction because I think others are mostly curious about my background. Yes, you are here but you do not belong – that resonates in my mind. Thank you John and let me add that I am not sure about your kickass Chinese but I am certain you kickass in ChinesePod. Thanks for teaching us that tough language.

  15. Chris Simpson Says: October 29, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    shan and liz (like my gf) do raise some good points有道理. I can imagine how hard it would be making friends on a western uni campus as a Chinese grad. I mean everyone would return “hi” but making friends and having real conversations would be tough too.

    I guess I find Chinese people more approachable/open sometimes, Western students are often “in groups”, have image or are constantly playing the prankster. Plus the western perception that Chinese people are all commie robots does suck and western unis do shameless milk the Chinese cow. That being said, not being “allowed” to order food/coffee in Mandarin in Shanghai China, the most “global” city, will always shit me to tears.

  16. Lee Hofweber Says: March 13, 2012 at 10:07 am

    This is a good one. I used this blog as an English lesson for my students a while back.

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