Marco Polo Syndrome

In a recent blog entry, Sam of ShenzhenRen discusses what Justin of Shenzhen Zen has coined “Marco Polo Syndrome.” Justin’s definition:

> **MPS: the silent social killer.**

> Symptoms: exaggerated manifestations of superiority and exclusivity fostered by the delusion that the individual was the first and only foreigner to “discover” China. While it’s difficult to fathom how one can still engage in this egregious self-deception while standing under a glowing neon 20-foot visage of Colonel Sanders, it’s apparently not an uncommmon affliction.

> Cure? Apparently none, though foreign friends in Shenzhen also confirmed my findings through their own research.

My comment on ShenzhenRen:

> “Marco Polo Syndrome” — haha, I love it! Whatever it is, I can confirm that the phenomenon is alive and well in Shanghai as well.

> All of the explanations you offered sound plausible. I quickly came to a conclusion after about two years in China: There are two kinds of foreigners in China: freaks and cool people. I think there are more of the former.

> The scary thing is that I have caught myself exhibiting some of the behavior you describe! I’ve never told anyone to “piss off” or anything that extreme, but I’ve certainly ignored other foreigners I pass by. I’m not sure why I do it — I think it’s out of some kind of assumption that all foreigners in Shanghai are dicks. But there’s really no need for me to follow suit and act that way.

> So now I make an effort to at least smile at other foreigners. Usually they ignore me or frown back, but at least I’m not one of them.

A visitor named Ryan (the same one that comments here sometimes?) replied:

> I think part of the problem in Shenzhen is the fact that most people don’t come here to “see” China (and if they do they’ve come to the WRONG place). We have other motives for living here. I think this leads to (at least) two types of people who exhibit MPS.

> 1) The asshole foreigner is here on business. Perhaps unwillingly. You will often see him at Starbucks and overpriced bars. He may take a fork with him to restaurants. Perhaps he is focused on his job and not interested in meeting new people. Perhaps he realizes that most foreigners in China are backpackers or teachers and feels a natural sense of superiority, preferring to associate only with other people who wear suits.

> 2) The asshole foreigner has been in China a while and has gravitated to Shenzhen in order to make money, support a family, have easy access to HK, etc. I’ve noticed length of time spent in China used as a status symbol. Perhaps they look down on other foreigners, assuming they are new arrivals (as they often are). Perhaps, having been here a while, they have their circle of friends and aren’t interested in having more. Maybe they think they are so native that they aren’t interested in foreigners (this doesn’t describe me, but I do find myself staring at foreigners as much, sometimes more, than the Chinese).

> I used to be a friendly foreigner, but after being snubbed so often I now wait to be acknowledged before I will do the same.

Whatever the explanation, there’s certainly something going on. (Notice that it’s an anagram for another ominous acronym?) Check out Sam’s analysis as well as Justin’s original entry.


John Pasden

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


  1. Sounds to me like Justin and Sam are the ones with MPS, and are projecting their own feelings of artificial superiority onto the “snooty” foreigners they almost meet.

    Let me phrase that differently:
    “I’ve been in China a long time and experienced a lot, and one thing I hate is people who think they’ve been in China a long time and experienced a lot. Whenever I try to be nice to other foreigners, they completely ignore me (or worse). Hey asshole, you’re white and I’m white — that means you have to at least smile at me on the street, if not join me in a bar or be my best friend forever (BFF). You think you’re special cause you wear a suit? What-EVAH, it’s not like I need another white friend anyway. I have a lot of Chinese friends and most foreigners in China suck. So there. pbbbbt”

  2. lol Brad quiet the spiel.

    I will have to take your word for it. My only experience with speaking to a foreigner while in China was telling some German to put out his cigarette when I was visiting the Summer palace.

    Perhaps its an issue of race or perhaps its just me, but when I visited China, I was never exactly in a mood to speak to foreigners by virtue of them being foreigners. I would however find myself staring, its just a natural habit that gets into you when a foreigner is such an oddity!

  3. Moneyinabox started a thread in the SmartShanghai forums a while ago about this, and Brad’s comment above reminded me of my comment at the time:

    ‘Sometimes I agree [that expats are overly rude to each other], but sometimes I think “what makes me [or you] more deserving of a nod or greeting than the other 13 million people in Shanghai?”.’

  4. Hell, maybe we’re just from vastly different cultures anyway, Brad. Where I come from, a polite nod or a “mornin’!” is typical. And plenty of people I meet here apparently share the same attitude. After being surrounded by mostly foreign languages and faces, a friendly word is always appreciated, and maybe half the lao wei I’ve met here are reasonably sociable. But there are still a freakish number of the strange ones. Saw the freaky teacher again this morning, and he almost jerked his head around, as if he had accidentally almost been caught making eye contact.

  5. Sam, I think we come from similar cultures, and I didn’t intend my previous comment as a direct attack on you. I’ve been hearing expats complain about the behaviour you mentioned since before I even came to China. I guess the main thing that bothers me about it is the idea that foreigners in China share some kind of bond, just because of our ethnicity. In my experience, the exact same people complaining about lack of acknowledgement from other foreigners will complain that Chinese people stereotype them and lump them in with all other foreigners.

    My advice: If your friendly words are not appreciated by the foreigners in Shenzhen, maybe you should try a nod and a smile to the Chinese people you see each morning.

  6. I have been laughing histerically for like 5 minutes on end now — I love it! MPS!!!

    But seriously — what is the deal ? Okay, there is no reason to be an straight-up asshole, but there is no good reason to be trading winks either. I mean think about it — every day I was in America, I saw upteen-billion people, and had the opportunity to chat or trade winks with any number of such Western blooded strangers. But I didn’t. I ended up only talking to my friends. So traveling half way across the fricking world just to discover a new world for myself, the last thing I’m gonna do is get excited about one extra opportunity to meet a Western blooded strangers! I mean I’ve ALREADY been passing up upteen-billion such opportunities for most of my life.

    Anyhow that is a periphery issue for me. The hardest thing for me to handle is the self consciousness foreigners induce. It is kind of like when I was a little kid and they told me something about how black people used to get treated differently. THANKS TO THOSE PEOPLE, to this very day, if I walk past a black skinned person on the street I instantly think ‘treat them like normal’, and obviously becoming self-conscious, this is impossible as I don’t know HOW to act normal all of the sudden. This is the VERY issue that we are all facing when we see other frongers — I mean, the problem is that it is blatantly obvious that our physical appearance is different, so it is hard to act appropriately — ie, to act as if they are just another Chinese person. And, as with black skinned folks, I end up just turning away and pretending they aren’t there at all, as to avoid the stress of trying my damndest at pretending to act normal.

  7. Hmmm, I think that the people who say other people are really the snooty ones because those people say other people are snooty are definitely the actual snooty ones. Hah!

    Trust me, I was by far the coolest kid in my high school.

  8. Matt, I am snooty, stuck-up, and conceited. I honestly think I’m better than everyone else, and I can prove it.

  9. Justin,

    Did you intentionally use the word fronger? That word is hilarious! (Not in UrbanDictionary yet…)

  10. Cheers

  11. Perhaps it’s just that a disproportionate number of social misanthropes come to China to teach English. It would certainly explain why I ¡­ oh, well, anyway, I do my best to be nice to people that I meet, Chinese and foreign, but being of European descent is not going to automatically make me go out of my way to communicate with you. Chinese might think that you’re special because you’re not from here, but I don’t — you’re just like me and I’m a damn boring person most of the time.

  12. Thanks Justin for pinning down so well the feeling, on seeing a foreigner, that one’s principles are on the line. I react much the same way — I don’t like people treating me differently because I’m a foreigner, so when I pass a foreigner in the street I almost feel it would be hypocritical to act as if I’ve noticed them at all.

    That’s what I’m like on a busy street. If I was waiting at the visa office or something, and there was another whitey there, of course I would say “Hello, do you speak English?”

    But generally I try to avoid getting into situations where there are many foreigners and few chinese. Not because I think foreigners are dicks, on the contrary I think it would be all too easy to make friends, and that would completely sabotage one of my main reasons for being in China – learning the language and the culture (and then talking about it with other foreigners online!).

  13. Wow. Sounds like the syndrome doesn’t just exist in China. I am living in Japan and both see and unintentionally exhibit some of MPS at any time. I DO try to be polite and at least nod, and of course help out someone if they are in trouble. I would NEVER tell another person off for talking to me or trying to. I do like Starbucks, but compared to other typical Japanese coffee shops it’s actually cheaper, and the only coffee shop there’s no smoking in. Just wanted to let you know it’s not limited to China.

  14. Interesting concept MPS. As for the rude foreigners over on business – give them a little sympathy. As one myself (though not yet to China) travelling is a pain in the arse especially if you have a family. Additionally, foreign business-types are probably very, very scared and disoriented, especially when they see other foreigners who don’t look scared and disoriented with their surroundings.
    I don’t think you should go out of your way to smile in particular at a westerner. When I am in London I don’t smile and say hi to people who look like me.
    (Reflection – I met a very nice guy from Nanjing whilst sitting on the street under a greasy bit of plastic sheeting in Seoul last month. He was quite friendly and chatty over the beer and fish despite my execrable chinese – but then I suppose we were both foreigners so that ruins my argument).

    Hey Matt Waters – is it you? I heard you were cool!

  15. Ok, all these comments of Westerners in Asia and how they interact with other Westerners while they’re in Asia makes me wonder: do Asian people in Western countries have any similar feelings? Obviously it’s more common to have Asian people in the West than it is to have Westerners in Asia, but I wonder if they do experience it to some degree? I mean, I went to a VERY white college in the Mid-west, and it seemed, that for the most part, the minorities (Hispanics, Asians and such) all grouped together. Is it just some sort of weird American/European complex to isolate themselves in Asia?

  16. Grace,

    From my experience, you don’t ask an Asian American stranger his/her ethnic background. I met a sweet Asian girl once through some white friends, I politely asked if she was Chinese. I think she got offended a little bit by my question. Nevertheless we became good friends later on, and she told me she came from Taiwan when she was very young.

  17. OMG expats in China don’t isolate themselves! A lot of them stick together like glue. This MPS issue is only about two foreigners who have never met before passing each other in the street, sitting in the same bar, etc.

    In Australia, it’s not uncommon for overseas students (eg. Chinese) to form almost exclusive social groups where they can speak their native language. The clearest result of this is that their progress in learning English is quite slow because they only use it at school, but I think there are lots of other unfortunate side-effects too. This is the parallel to the expat social groups in China. Is this just some sort of weird American/European/Asia/African/Australian complex?

  18. I see this observation of social etiquette in a different light. What I observe is that the difference is based on self defined social class: backpackers and English teachers vs. business people. The distinction is based by English teachers (from my meagre anecdotal accounts), and being self defined, they define themselves as the “good guys” and all others not within their “social class” as the “bad guys”.

    When in America, I have personally met people from different countries (Canada, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, and Europeans of various persuasions) who were still nationals of their country and were either managers for multinationals from their country or were starting or running businesses of their own in America. I saw nothing wrong with that. So I see nothing wrong with foreigners, Americans, Japanese, Koreans, Singaporeans, Europeans of various persuasions, etc. doing business in China.

    I know two Americans, both are knowledgeable in Chinese, one would probably be rated as a 4/4 on the U.S. Government language tests, the other probably a 3+/3. Both are married to Americans (caucasians), both have children. One has a boy that is in a bilingual school in Shanghai (I am not all that impressed with international schools, but this one appears to be pretty good, half the classes are taught in Chinese (math, for instance) and the other half are taught in English). The boy is probably in the second grade, and his Chinese appears to be native. They live in an upscale housing complex, most of the neighbors, of whom two I also have an acquaitance with) are for the most part upscale Chinese or overseas Chinese with a small scattering of expats. The boy’s friends are mostly Chinese and they speak Chinese with one another.

    As for as eating Western food, etc. Most Asians that I know have a difficult time with Western food. Not all Asians, but many. So why would it be any different with Westerners adapting to Chinese food (or any Asian food). That is probably more of an ability to adapt to something that is different from what we are accustomed to. I knew an South Asian Indian who could not get the knack of using chopsticks, not matter how often he tried.

    In conclusing, I think all these musings addressed in this posting are reminiscent of 19th century class awareness, illusionary then, illusionary now.

  19. Phil,

    It wasn’t me. My only time in Seoul was spent passed out in the transit lounge on a 5-hour layover.

    Maybe it was this guy.

  20. This is not a China-specific phenomenon. I used to live in Italy and found the exact same thing with ex-pats there. I think it has something to do with why people become ex-pats in the first place: 1) they are sick of dealing with people in their own country for one reason or another, 2) they are jealous of their newly-found superstar status. #2 probably applies a lot more in China than in Europe.

    The few months that I was in China, I definitely came away with the impression that most foreigners I saw there were freaks…like 25-year-old guys in fedoras or freakishly large Germans. That was just my impression for whatever reason.

    I have seen the other side of it, too. Many Chinese who live in the US seem to genuinely dislike dealing with other Chinese here. I don’t know why, and I don’t know if that is common, but it is common among the Chinese I know.

    I agree with this sentiment: we would ignore each other at home, so why are you trying to give me the secret handshake just because we both happen to be abroad? That doesn’t mean you have to be openly rude or a jerk, though, for no real reason — and a lot of ex-pats fall into that category.

  21. Heh. It’s turned into a very interesting thread. I think some of you are WAY overcomplicating it; What’s wierd about the common courtesy of returning a greeting?

    But (from above) I hadn’t thought about #1 some people are sick of dealing with folks from their own country already. Must be an element of truth there.

    And Brad, I think you must not have read the other posts in question. We ARE quite friendly with our Chinese neighbors; they seem normal. My comment about “pitiful wankers with no social skills” seemed over-rude, but now I’m thinking it’s more valid.

  22. This is too funny, this PMS, I mean, MPS thing. I thought us Chinese were the only ones rudely staring at foreigners. I thought we were the paranoid race that insists on calling foreigners oceanic devils ¨C yangguizi, laowai, and so many other derogatory names. I thought only the primitive ones among us would term our compatriots befriending or pretending to be foreigners as jia yangguizi – ¼ÙÑó¹í×Ó (foreign devil pretenders/contenders).

    When the Chinese come flocking around you with 28 different ways to “Hello” you, you are convinced that this at times is the most annoying word. When a fellow whitey won’t so much as to nod or “mornin” you, your reaction is just who the #%@k d’you think you are, Marco Polo? Those who won’t use chopsticks, won’t take off the suit (or backpack), or speak Chinese to you instead of English, you know, they all have MPS.

    When overseas Chinese won’t mingle with the whitey locals, it is called the Chinatown phenomenon or the hotpot bunch. The worse groups fight turf wars in Chinatown ¨C they are the triads and so forth. When the same thing happens among western expats it is MPS?

    Anyway, go on, don’t take me serious — this is just for funnies.

  23. If fronger is cognate to the Thai word for foreigner, which it appears to be, the its history, as I understand it, is that the Thais, and others, received it from the Arabs, either directly or by way of India and Persia. The Arabs used the term to describe the Franks (that German tribe that gave its name to France), and Europeans in general and later morphed into being the term for foreigner. Or so I understand the etymology.

    By the way, I should have used the word illusory instead of illusionary. Not that I knew how to spell the word to begin with.

  24. By the way, John, thanks for the link. I’m still rebuilding the site, but you’ll be back up on the blogroll soon!

  25. JFS,

    How are you speculating that fronger and farang are cognates? We’re not even sure it’s a word, and Google turns up nothing. IS this just blind speculation? Have you ever seen/heard the word “fronger” before?

  26. Sam,

    No problem…
    Although you offer some ideas worth thinking about, what totally made me link to the entry was the term “Marco Polo Syndrome.” Brilliant. Hilarious. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

  27. Clarifications:
    I’m really glad that John enjoyed my new word — feel free to spread it and use it in casual speech. I didn’t think so much about it — but on second thought, I think I’m going to start using it regularly henceforth. Actually, I was manually spell-checking my response, when I noticed that I misspelled foreigner. Just as I was about to fix it, I though I should just invent a new word instead… When Thai was mentioned — I thought maybe it really was the Thai word, and that is why it came to my head– but glad to see that is not the case.

    I like the new logo! The funny thing is that for the first several dozen refreshes, I thought the new logo had the name of Sinosplice in both English and Chinese. I guess it is obvious that I’m studying in Japan now =) I didn’t know Katakana had become so transparent to me. (And it doesn’t help when I’m switching randomly between Chinese, Japanese, AND English with Chinese friends here. Usually the only way I can differentiate is that when I don’t understand something, I presume it must have been said in Japanese.)

  28. I have heard the term “fronger” (or something similar to it) before, and it was in Thailand from Americans attempting to replicate the Term. This does not negate Justin’s “discovery” of the word. Just as with most discoveries, it is seldom that the discovery is unique, but the discovery itself may be unique, just as Justin’s explanation is differs from how the terms I heard in Thailand originated.

  29. Let me add some particulars, but I have forgotten most of the details, as this was about four or five years ago. I heard the term on two seperart occasions by two different individuals. Both individuals did have an acquaintance with one another, although they were not close friends. So I do not know whether this had a single source with multiple manfestations or had multiple sources. I believe that one was in Bangkok and the other in Pattaya, but both may have been uttered in Pattaya. One used what in common parlance is a hard “g” and the other used a soft “g” (using the orthography as supplied by Justin). The first time I heard it I inquired of the individual what it meant, and he told me it was the Thai for foreigner. I did not ask him if he had heard this from others or was his own invention. The second time I heard it I just assumed it was some sort of expat word based on the Thai. I may be in error. None of this is to take away Justin’s serendippity.

  30. Kikko Man Says: April 1, 2005 at 12:41 am

    My first year in China I made it a goal that if I hung out with foreigners, they had to be non-English speaking, if possible. That helped my Chinese for a while but got old.

    Also, after many years in China, I still smile or nod at, or whatever, every foreigner I run into. Of course, I smile or nod at any Chinese person who seems to be paying attention so I guess it’s no big stretch for me.

    I have found that there are certain nationalitites that are less likely to be friendly on the streets. I won’t name any but stereotyping can be useful and fun sometimes. Guess those people are just scared, or they are assholes. Where I live in Nanning, most locals and foreigners are pretty damn cool. In Shanghai and Beijing though I’ve found there are alot of foreigners out there trying to scam or use other foreigners so that is one reason why many “laowai” in Shanghai are so suspicious of other “laowai”. Just a few observations.

    Oh yeah… the Marco Polo Syndrom is great… wish they’d come up with some pre-departure inoculation for that pompous shit!!!

  31. test

  32. Sorry about that, John’s blog not letting me comment so I’m just trying to figure out what’s objectionable about my address!

    ANyway MPS: anyone read William Sutcliffe’s “Are you experienced?” about a backpacker in India who seems to be the only one who doesn’t have the Indian version of MPS. It’s not that well written but the idea is brilliant — I had thought about writing a book about MPS in China (although I hadn’t heard the term) after meeting a whole lot of backpackers when I was living in a village — I totally had MPS and I’m not sure why. I just got offended by whatever they did… Yeah so I thought a book would be a good way to explore how come I have those kind of anti-fronger feelings. Anyone else actually has it, or just talks about it?

  33. schtickyrice Says: April 1, 2005 at 8:58 am

    A smug sense of moral superiority is what makes backpackers insufferable, regardless of their nationality or race. Suburban middle class “rebels” on a poverty trip, roughing it in solidarity with the friendly natives of the Third World. How quaint, how condescending…

  34. After thinking about this more, I think there is something more basic here. For example, look at how almost anyone over the age of 27 views teenagers and college kids. After you gain experience, whether in a specific context (like China) or in life in general, the earnest, inexperienced, and naive become annoying, predictable, and unbearable. So MPS seems like almost a natural tendency — one that has to be resisted.

  35. Miroslav Says: April 4, 2005 at 10:07 am

    Wow, what an interesting syndrom. I came to Canada a few years ago, and that’s where I live now. Howeer, I have not experienced the MPS with the people from my country who live here as well. The only time I have something to object to is when I hear them say something utterly stupid about Canada or Canadians. There is no way I could have any kind of attitude towards them if I just see them, and they don’t say anything. Also, just like Braid said in his post here (the first one on the list), just because somebody is your own race, it does not mean he’s suddenly your best friend, regardless of which part of the world you’re at. I can go to Pizza Pizza at a mall, recognize that an employee there is from the same country as me (name tag lol), and still speak English as if the dude/girl there was just anybody.

  36. Kaili,

    I read “Are You Experienced” a few years back. I remember enjoying it, but I don’t remember the MPS connection. I remember there was a lot about the “backpacker type.” I think I need to reread it…

  37. John — it’s because I read excerpts of it in Tourism Concern (magazine) which pulled out the bit about the English reporter who lived in India(who had MPS) hauling out the backpacker for just wanting to talk to a white guy, although supposedly in India to experience the Indian way of life. Also the guy’s girlfriend thinks she’s really Indian with yoga and saris etc and is ‘not a tourist but a traveller’. Actually I was pretty disappointed with the book when I bought it later.

    I guess its not exactly related to MPS (or the indian version thereof) but its the whole attitude of ‘I’m doing it the right way and you’re not’, whatever that way may be. After researching tourism in China I wrote an article for a magazine here about how in some cases the ‘evil’ mass tourists are actually better for the environment/community development because they are willing to follow the rules. I kind of abused Western lonely-planet toting backpackers in China from the point of view of the Tibetans in Jiuzhaigou, comparing them to the Chinese domestic tourists like goats to sheep — the former wanders off and chews everything up, the latter keeps to the track and the rules and doesn’t harm anything too much. That’s why I said I had MPS, I just hated talking to them and hearing them abuse the Chinese tourists and thinking they were all buddy-buddy with Tibetans.

    In saying that, I was on the recieving end of a lot of MPS too… except when someone wanted to be introduced to a Tibetan!

  38. schtickyrice Says: April 5, 2005 at 11:29 am


    Interesting perspective on backpackers. The sadest thing is that they actually think they are in solidarity with the Tibetans when in reality they are doing nothing short of treating the Tibetans as noble savages. Just look at how much good that did for the Native Americans.

  39. Schtickyrice: that’s totally true, although I guess in saying that, the Chinese tourists are also seeing them either as noble savages or as primitives or as ‘exotic others’. That’s what that kind of tourism is about I guess.

    The Chinese tourists generally said “oh my, you are actually living here? Isn’t it, like… dirty?”

    Whereas the backpackers totally over-romanticised it: “wow, if only we could still have this kind of peaceful lifestyle in Israel/Germany/America” whilst ignoring all the inequalities and problems with Tibetan culture too (I mean we are all human right).

  40. schtickyrice Says: April 6, 2005 at 9:32 am

    Of course, with all the constant government propaganda about the ‘merry minorities’, how can any Han have an accurate picture of any ethnic minority in China unless they actually come in contact with one on a daily basis? Han Chinese culture has been stripped of all its soul by the relentless forces of communism and capitalism and the ‘merry minorities’ are used as singing and dancing substitutes for authentic native culture. One thing I will say about the Chinese tourists is that at least they don’t pretend to be anything else than the package tourists that they are…there’s none of this bleeding-heart politically correct traveler crap of the dreadlocked and bongo banging backpacking crowd.

    The situation you describe with the Tibetans in Jiuzhaiguo reminds me of my visit to the 9 Tribes Cultural Village in central Taiwan, where Taiwanese aboriginal culture was disneyfied for the package tour crowd. The good part about that place is that at least we were spared the sanctimonious backpackers. Taiwanese aboriginals just don’t have the same coolness factor.

  41. Thanks everyone I have enjoyed this discussion hugely. I am a Geologist working in SW for the last 2 years. I would like to have some expat friends but I haven’t met too many I like. 60% of the people I meet appear to be here just for the sex; old men, teachers, bussinessmen alike. About 30% of the others are Americans buying cheap babies (mostly stolen from their families in Guizhou). I have no interest in talking to them. I may have some of the symptoms of MPS but I think its a natural reaction to too many assholes. Its the same reaction as locals exhibit in tourist towns to the daytrippers.

  42. I’m not too familiar with the MPS, but I have lived in China for a few years and I see where someof you are coming from.

    First of all, I am one of those businessmen in China (Beijing) but I don’t consider myself an asshole. I speak Chinese, my friends here are almost all Chinese, and I have adjusted quite well to the culture. I also speak Chinese well. Many of my Chinese friends can’t speak English.

    As for the freaky foreigners living in China? Well I would say that they make up well over fifty percent of the foreigners here. That’s why I generally avoid foreigners in China.

    I don’t see why anyone has a moral obligation to nod and smile at another foreigner. I think people who say that are talking about white people. What about the Japanese, Koreans, and South East Asians here-should I smile at them too?

    I actually think that the business people that live and work in China are among the nicest foreigners here. In order to do well here, we must understand the language, culture, and have relationships with many Chinese people.

    It baffles me that a foreigner can have a hard time in Beijing. All you need to do is smile, speak some Chinese, and be a nice person, and Chinese people will treat you like gold. Its very easy for a foreigner to make Chinese friends here.

    So next time you see a guy in a suit, don’t assume he’s a jerk. Some of us give foreigners a very good name.

  43. Jack Fancy Says: December 12, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    maybe this is how it all starts…. perusing webpages concerning the life of a lao wei in china… wasn’t interested when i started here but outta boredom the curiousity rises… i live in LanZhou and it is fairly void of foreigners aside from a good handful… been here two years and i’ve seen more coming here but it’s still nothing like that of the more popular user friendly cities… i’ve got almost nothing in common with most of the foreigners that come here but i still give a ‘what’s up’ nod in there direction… it’s that recognition of being different… if i was back in the states, it wouldn’t be for anybody aside from friends, associates or the sharing of a common experience… nothing’s different here… it’s a sharing of a common experience, no doubt… what really cracks me up is when a ‘monkey’ from the west comes here and is showered with ‘attention’ but he can’t speak a lick of chinese and thinks he is being adored and can do whatever he wants when really he is the next big circus freak show event and said individual becomes puffed up with self importance and acts even, stupider, then i loathe this type…
    anyways, from businessmen to teachers to backpackers to a mama’s child on an adventuristic travel fund, they are all on the same level… you can either spend time with them or you can’t… it’s called ‘life’… and that’s what it’s all about…

  44. I had come to know this, in another form, as the “Laowai Death Stare.” I’m quite sure I didn’t make it up myself; I think I got that term from the deceased Regardless, it refers to those MPS afflicted people who think, “this is MY China, what are YOU doing here!?” Note: most commonly seen in quote-unquote off the beaten track places, where in actuality, thousands of travelers have come before. Ex: Tibet, Xinjiang, Chengdu (!!!), Xishuangbanna, etc.

    Gosh I hate those people.

  45. MPS was first diagnosed by Ernie Diaz on his first visit to Beijing late last century.Finished with his obligatory greasy duck and Great Wall inspection, he turned his attention to more Larry David-esque matters. An amiable man (on the surface), Diaz grew perplexed at the high proportion of fellow foreigners in the big Smoggy who refused to return his friendly grin, or even make eye contact.

    Back home, ensconced in his duct-taped la-z-boy, Diaz applied the empirical methods of Spinoza, and aided by several snifters of Cutty Sark, rapidly deduced the matter.

    Aloofness springs from insecurity, and hostility from fear. He reasoned that, having no knowledge of his extensive criminal record [or subsequent fully paid debt to society], these mamalukes could not be reacting to him, but rather to the fact that he too was a foreigner. He knew that in America, strange birds of a feather, particularly Asian, bonded like Bloods caught on Crip turf, nahm sayin’? Why would big-noses in China actively avoid each other? The recent coverage of MPS by the good people at Sinosplice and Shen Zhen Ren means that there’s enough awareness of MPS to merit clinical explication.

    Early Symptoms of MPS

    Early symptoms of MPS strike first-time visitors to China, and are usually only temporary for those of sound mind and character. Particularly at risk are Americans who refer to Asians as “Orientals”, or God forbid, “Yallers” [only in the South]. Symptoms may include but are not limited to:

    Standing in the middle of bustling Chinese commercial centers and shaking one’s head in wonderment at the inevitable McDonald’s and KFCs.
    Uncontrolled yelling and gesticulating on encountering stalls full of Chairman Mao alarm clocks and red-star army caps.
    Communicative Aphasia, manifested by shouting English in the mistaken belief that increased volume can bridge the language gap.
    Selective diminution of the ego, manifested by gladly undergoing various humiliations in order to hit it off with “the natives”.
    Maniacal euphoria at riding a crowded Chinese subway/bus, followed by profound dismay on noticing a fellow foreigner who is completely unmoved by the environment.
    An OCD fetish for buying and donning all manner of unsightly hiking clothes, bags, and boots, more suited to an exploration of the Yukon than the two kilometer stroll from one’s hotel to Wangfujing Street.
    Chronic MPS

    Sadly, the Institute of Recent Studies has found that one in three long-term visitors to China develop chronic MPS. Signs of chronic MPS include:

    Depraved ogling of a fellow foreigner’s Chinese girlfriend/wife, while walking about with one’s own Chinese girlfriend/wife, followed by a pronounced slump of the shoulders if the other Cg/w is perceived to be ‘hotter’. A cocky strut denotes that the MPS sufferer has concluded his Cg/w is ‘hotter’.
    A compulsion to speak sub-standard Chinese at street-hawker decibel levels, followed by rage and shame when the Chinese listener doesn’t understand, or even worse, when corrected by another foreigner.
    Practiced cunning in surreptitiously determining other foreigners’ “time in”. A condescending smirk follows an evaluation of having served in China longer; a studied indifference follows an evaluation to the contrary.
    An irresistible urge to one-up any and all anecdotes by other foreigners wishing to show that they, too, have been “in the bush”.
    Selective public blindness to other non-Chinese, to the extent of not noticing one if they were the only two people in Tiananmen Square, and the other foreigner was copping a squat in full Pennywise clown gear.
    Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?

    Currently, there is no cure for MPS. However, we here at the China Expat Foreign Pathology Center are working day and night to help jabroneys across China who suffer this cruel affliction. We depend on your generosity to keep hope alive. Won’t you give? For what you spend in a ‘hair salon’ each Friday night, you can help that poor jerkwad sitting with his laptop at Starbucks, glaring at you for de-Chinafying his environment.

    Pink Notes or Money Transfers only: make payable to Ernie “el Guapo” Diaz c/o China Expat.

    Email: Ernie (at) Chinaexpat (dot) com
    Phone: (86) 10-5979-6677 ext. 503
    China Expat Magazine

     Ernie Diaz’ Bio

    Ernie Diaz arrived in Beijing back in 2003, and hasn’t stopped coughing since. A self-professed China amateur, he embraces writing as a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.

  46. Tamalias Says: June 26, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    Ernie, I have been reading a few of these posts as I have been trying to figure out MPS, and yours is the best description yet. I fully cacked myself laughing.

    You are a classic, man!!

  47. I think that I have a juvenille case of MPS.

    I’m the youngest foreigner I’ve seen so far, and being called a baby at work” all the time in the office makes me feel like the youngest foreigner to ever enter China.

    All the locals here first ask how old I am, then ask why I’m studying, then ask why in the world I’m working when I am so young instead of teaching English!

    My work background makes me interesting because I think I am the youngest “obvious” foreigner to ever come to China for work. This really confuses the older business folk at my hotel who like to think that I must be teaching english, because no one my age has a right to work in China. Ohh man, I get shock from both the laowai and the locals no matter where I go.

  48. The term “Marco Polo Syndrome” is much older. It has been used by the Cuban artist Flavio Garciandía for his installation at the 2nd Havana Biennial in 1986, see:

    Later, the Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera took the term for an essay about problems of cultural communication. Based on this I organized a symposium in Berlin in 1995 with the title:
    The Marco Polo Syndrome. Problems of intercultural communication in art theory and curatorial practice.

    More about, please see:

  49. Daddy Freddy Says: April 11, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Brilliant article, absolutely spot on. I really couldn’t work it out for the first few years why there was this mutual hostility between foreigners on the street. It defintitely has something to do with ‘WTF? another big nose cramping my China style’. It is a pretty infantile attitude and since i came back for my 5th year in Jan I’ve really been having fun by trying to make eye contact and smile at foreigners. As noted above a majority just scowl back but ive been really surprised how readily people will drop the frown to wink and smile. I say ‘spread love among the laowai’

  50. Colin McLarty Says: October 21, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    With vastly less experience than people here have, I have to mention another reason for passing by someone evidently American. I spent a few hours each day for a week in neighborhoods around Haidian, Beijing where I would see no foreigners (which did not make me think no others had been there!) using good enough Mandarin to get by but not to converse with anyone. I saw one foreigner, he looked American, and we kind of glanced at each other and I thought `he probably really does speak Mandarin and is not here to be pulled back into English.’ I don’t think either of us gave any “Death Stare” but we nodded shyly and went our way. I wonder if I missed a chance to make friend and learn about the district. But I think I avoided disrupting someone’s hard-won effort to be immersed in the language.

  51. It seems only natural to acknowledge shared experience (being foreign in China).

    Plus, in America at least, I would say it’s considered polite to nod and say hello, even to strangers (except in big cities). As that custom does not exist in Chinese society (and certainly not in Communist Chinese urban society), it doesn’t make sense to really suggest that foreigners nod at everyone.

    That said, the number of weird people, and jaded people, does make it difficult. That’s on top of the “I’m cooler than you are” phenomenon.

  52. I’m from Manhattan. Asking people to smile and nod to each other just because our DNA vaguely represents each others is ridiculous. I’m not going to smile at some random schmuck in the elevator on 55th Street, and I’m not going to smile at some random schmuck on Dong Zhi Men Street. Who cares? Just do whatever you need to do.

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