On Being a Laowai

Whenever I go to any famous landmark in Beijing, there is usually a huge crowd of people, and I almost always hear one of a few things while I’m walking through the crowd.  Laowai is a term for foreigners as is waiguoren, and these words follow any non-Asian person through the crowd.  The more of us there are in a group, the more exclamations we will hear.  The more stares we will get.  The more people will blatantly take pictures, sometimes with us, sometimes from a distance without asking first at all.  As with many things in adjusting to a new culture, the best thing to do is to simply laugh it off, or even play along.  Sometimes I’ll give an unsolicited camera a big thumbs up, wave enthusiastically or greet the photographer in Chinese.  This always surprises them.  I have friends who, if it is convenient, pick up their own camera and take a picture back.  

The fact that I stick out like a sore thumb no matter what I do and where I go is something I’ve had to get used to in China.  My friends in Europe are excited when someone confuses them for a local.  That will never happen to me here, no matter how good my Chinese becomes, no matter how culturally aware I am I will always be different.  It can be exhausting sometimes, to constantly be stared at by people riding the bus who don’t really have anything better to do in that time anyways, the kids who look at me with wary eyes on the street.  However, I’ve more or less learned to deal with it.  Its only on the bad days that these things really annoy me.  Its good to remember that people are just naturally curious.  

Being a waiguoren does have its advantages.  It is assumed that I can’t speak Chinese and that I need help with everything.  Sometimes this is true, and playing the dumb tourist can be useful.  My Asian-American friends meet confusion from Chinese people as to why they look Chinese but can’t speak the language.  I have my friend Mykhanh’s spiel about how her parents are Vietnamese but she is American almost memorized.  If I am with an Asian friend, Chinese people will consistently speak directly to them and not to me at all.  Side note: my friend Irene and I were able to help two German girls order a cake in the bakery yesterday… accomplishments!  This can be exhausting for them, just as constantly sticking out is for me.  Having these multiple perspectives as a part of my experience has helped me to see the China experience in a way different from my bubble.  Which is a very, very, good thing.

This will be my last blog for awhile as I am headed to TIBET tomorrow for my class about ethnic minorities in China.  I’ll have internet again in about two weeks!

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