Being a Foreigner in a Small Chinese Town

Being a foreigner in a smallish Chinese town is quite an experience. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you’re a spectacle. Everything is difficult for you. Nothing goes as expected. If you can speak any Chinese, your (near-constant) audience will be amazed and enthralled. Frequently being the center of attention of a group of non-English-speaking people can really spur one to improve one’s Chinese. A foreigner in a smallish Chinese town who can speak Chinese fairly well can quite quickly become a local celebrity, even getting newspaper writeups and TV spots. A big fish in a small pond, so to speak.

My friend and ex-co-worker Shelley is one such big fish. After living in Beijing for a year, then Shanghai for over a year, his Chinese skills are impressive. He decided to take those skills and head over to Shandong province to direct an English school in Dongying, a town which certainly qualifies as “smallish.”

Shelley recently put up a website. Reading the Dongying section, I couldn’t help but be especially amused by what he wrote about the bars there:

> Dongying has a bar street that looks …interesting. Pick your favorite place, teach them how to make your drinks the way you like them, then walk in like you own the place. They’ll remember you because you’re their foreign regular, and they’ll be sure to treat you right because you’re better than a neon sign for attracting more patrons. If we make a bar our group favorite, we can tell them what music to play… and kick people out we don’t like. Does that sound imperialistic to you? Then get out of my bar.

Hangzhou was nowhere near as small as Dongying is, but the phenomenon is nevertheless very familiar to me (and very absent in Shanghai). It looks like I’ll be heading to Dongying soon on business, so I’ll have an opportunity to visit Shelley and then check out that bar street myself and relive the imperalism a bit.

(Also take a look at the nice map Shelley made of all the places he’s visited in China. Although he has done some traveling, a lot of the places were visited working for Melody, where I now work. I don’t think I’m very far behind him in number of places visited, and my job is sure to send me to more soon…. I need to make my own map!)


John Pasden

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


  1. You’re right, Shelley did do a neat map. Are you going to have a similar one?

    How did he get into Xizang province? Government tour?

    We’ll be watching for “John Pox” to strike China. What’s “John Pox”? Taht’s those red dots all over the face of the map. 🙂

  2. Tibet has been open to foreign travelers for quite some time. There are tons of backpackers and mountaineers in Tibet now. Just a few weeks ago, I heard that a pair of Koreans dissappeared on one expedition gone awry. You may need some sort of permit from your friendly neighborhood PSB to enter Tibet though.

    p.s. Did you know spammers were hitting your comment archive John? Theres a bunch of ads for online casinos, pornography, and other things in comments from June.

  3. Reminds me of my time spent in Baishan, a little town (only 500K people!) in southern Jilin province. I was, until about five days before I left, the only foreigner in the town, and everywhere I went I was the coolest damn thing around. The restaurant I went to frequently even made a menu that, while containing no English, had photos of all of the foods so you could find something that looked tasty and point. It was great.

    Though you can certainly improve your Chinese quickly in a place like that, it’s hard to start learning in such a place. My Chinese at the time was almost non-existant, and it was really really hard to learn anything because there was nobody around that could explain words or concepts that you don’t understand.

    Still, I shocked and amazed with my knowledge of such esoteric words as “potato” and “beef.” 🙂

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