Let’s face it, there are plenty of blogs out there about what it’s like to be an expat, a foreigner, a waiguoren, in China. Even Chinese people are so familiar with the stereotypes now, that it sometimes feels like they seem to know your entire life story before you even utter your name or your country. When I walk in however, it always throws them. Since my Chinese side seems to have largely overwritten the German genes from my father’s side, at first glance I look mostly Chinese.
Recently we had a blog written by my friend Helen about her experiences, as her ethnicity is also Chinese. This time I’ll talk a bit about my own experiences as a ‘Chinese Foreigner in China’.
So, as I mentioned, apart from being half Chinese, I am also German, and have lived in Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and Spain, followed by the UK and China. So when people ask me where I’m from, even I am not really sure what to say. In recent years I’ve learned to use whichever country comes in handy at the time… so sometimes I’m Chinese, sometimes German and sometimes just ‘mixed’… When I tell a Chinese person that I’m German though, they usually don’t believe me.
At times having an oriental face can be quite helpful, as I can blend in with the crowd and so mostly avoid people staring at me or wanting to take pictures with me. It also helps a lot when shopping at places where prices are not set. And my bargaining skills are not too bad either!
It’s when I have to speak Chinese, that things get tricky. I have studied Chinese for four years but it’s still far from fluent. When a Chinese person speaks to me (usually in the local dialect), they expect me to understand everything they say, at whatever speed they are talking. If I say I don’t understand, I am usually met with a very blank look followed by a frown. Sometimes my comment is even entirely ignored and they just repeat exactly what they just said. In those cases where I do get some time to explain why my Chinese isn’t perfect, it still takes a while before it has sunk in. And as I said, they don’t always believe me..
Taxi drivers are another challenge, especially since they often like to chat in Sichuanhua (the local Sichuan dialect) over here. By the time I’ve finished explaining my background to them, or have asked them to speak slower or repeat what they said several times, I’ve already arrived at my destination…
When I first came to China, the hardest part for me was to adapt to the fact that everyone expected me to speak Chinese, and I actually felt a little pressured by it. Often people thought I was either a translator or a tour guide, if I was travelling with my friends. Over time, however, I grew so used to people talking at me at super-speeds, that it has actually improved my Chinese listening skills! Who would’ve thought! And it’s always amusing to see the very surprised faces, when one of my waiguo (foreign) friends speaks up in Chinese. Chinese people, I’ve noticed, are always very happy and welcoming to those who attempt to talk with them in Chinese, even if it’s just simple phrases, so never be shy to try!
Now I’ve been in China for almost a year and a half in total, and I’ve learned to adapt to the Chinese way of life and way of thinking. This doesn’t mean that life isn’t interesting anymore though, as everyday China finds a way to surprise you. It has been a steep learning curve but a very rewarding journey up until now, and I’m excited to see what paths lie ahead!
Join me on my China adventure and apply now for an internship in Qingdao, Zhuhai or Chengdu!
You may have read on our blog before about being a foreigner in China and the way the local Chinese respond to foreigners when they see them. If you haven’t, you can read it here before continuing on.
Currently all my family live in the UK and my generation were the first to be born and raised there. The five generations before mine were actually born and raised in Vietnam, but going further back in my family history, my ancestors were from Guanxi in China.
Due to my background I get a different response to the ‘typical’ foreigner here in China and I will tell you some of my experiences I have had.
I first came to Chengdu in 2011 without the ability to converse in Mandarin. I only knew the basics such as hello and thank you. At that time, I relied on others to get around and more often than not my friend from Belgium would ask the locals for directions. That person would then turn to me to explain how to get there. They often expect that everyone who looks Chinese can speak Mandarin and is ‘the translator’. It wasn’t me who asked the question, you should direct your answer to the one who asked. My friend didn’t need any help at all, his Mandarin was (and still is) way better than mine!
During my first stay in Chengdu as a student, a few of my friends were non-Asian westerners. Whilst walking around on the university campus they were often approached by locals, sometimes these locals were looking for English teachers. Although my friends were not native English speakers they would be offered English teaching jobs on the spot because they had a foreign face. The locals would not even acknowledge I was there, even after my friend introduced me to them.
This was actually quite recent one! My friend Brigitte (also from a Chinese background – half Chinese, half German) and I had gone out to eat at a restaurant. We both find it easier to read from a menu that is on paper than on the wall so we took one of the menus at the front desk of the restaurant. As we reached out for it the owner pointed and said that’s an English menu. We actually were very pleased with this but the manager looked down at us as if to say ‘You’re Chinese, why can’t you read and speak Chinese fluently’.
When I was back in the UK and people asked me where I am from I would usually say my home town. But I do remember once when I had just started university, I gave someone this response and I was then laughed at! I found this strange as I never had this response before. My friends still laugh at this and bring it up to this day. Why can’t I say my home town? This is where I was born and where I spent most of my life growing up. When I’m in China and am asked where I am from I would say the UK. What are your opinions on this? Do I need to go that far back in my family history?
My ethnicity is Chinese and my nationality is British. If someone could please teach me how to say this in Chinese, I would be very grateful! 🙂
If you want to hear more stories about being a foreigner or Chinese foreigner in China or even experience this for yourself. Apply for an internship now!
Happy New Year to everyone out there:) I’m now back in the office after 2 weeks of travelling through China.
One thing I learned in those two weeks is that a little Chinese can help a lot, especially because a lot of Chinese people aren’t very good or don’t even speak a word in English. Even in cities like Beijing and Shanghai you will sometimes have problems communicating what you want.
When I first arrived in China for my internship the first problem was the communication – because of a delay of my flight I couldn’t get the ferry to Zhuhai. BUT there was no one who could explain the problem – they tried to speak English but I couldn’t understand a word.
Same problem was with the taxi drivers – in general you must be very lucky if you find an English speaking taxi driver in Zhuhai 🙂 During shopping in the underground markets, where you have to bargain for the price it’s even harder – haggling is not easy if both parties don’t speak the same language.
There are a lot more situations where I was lost without any help of the other interns, who already had Chinese classes. Honestly I felt stupid, like a small child that couldn’t do anything without help.
That’s why I decided to start Chinese language classes. I just talked with Morgan, our Office Manager in Zhuhai and the following week my Chinese classes begun. The best is to have a private teacher, 1 to 1 classes – so the teacher can slow down if you need more time or if you already know a little Chinese you will start at your level. I took 2 hours twice a week, so every Monday and Friday after work I went to the language school and expanded my language skills. As it is a private teacher you can arrange the time individually which is an advantage, especially when you have a full-time internship.
During my tour through China I was glad to be able to communicate at least a little with the people. Very often it was about ordering food in the restaurant or asking for directions. There are some basic things you really need to know and then it will be easier for you to live and travel in China.
As a bonus it also looks nice on your CV to have a language like Chinese – even if it is just the very basic. I hope this will help me in my future career, when I have meetings with colleagues from China – as Chinese people are very impressed when you can speak a little Chinese 🙂
If you are interested in Chinese Language classes to start or to improve your language skills, apply now!
If you are of non-Asian origins one of the first words you will hear in China is 老外lǎowài or 外国人wàiguórén, meaning “foreigner”. Although there are many foreigners living in China now, if you are not in Beijing or Shanghai most people won’t be used to seeing you all the time.What does being a Laowai mean?
Usually people will be happy to meet you. Some might be curious and ask where you are from and what you are doing in China. They will be really happy if you are able to speak in Chinese with them, even if it’s just a few words they will praise your Chinese with ‘你的中文很好.’ –“Your Chinese is really good.” even if you just said ‘你好 ‘ – “Hello“.
Many people will just bluntly stare at you, some might call out the word Laowai, or even say ‘hello’. At the beginning I tried to be friendly and greet back, but at some point it was just too much and I started to ignore it. You will feel like a star when you go to a tourist place, because many Chinese people will take the chance to get a picture not only of the scenery, but also of ‘the foreigner’. Some might ask you to take a picture together with them.
The first thing people usually will ask is if you are American. If you are from the US, that’s great! If you are not, explain to them where you come from and that there are some other countries in the world, it is always good to know your country’s name in Chinese (https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/countrynames_chinese.htm). If you have anything your country is famous for, also point that out and they might have an idea, for Germany it’s usually cars and beer. Even if you don’t like stereotypes, they are what most people know in the end. 😉
In addition to being photographed by random strangers, you will also be asked by some people if you want to be their model or attend their event, the so-called ‘White face event’. They just need your foreign appearance to make their customers and other people think that they are very international. You could try it for a once in a lifetime experience, but most of the times it’s better to stay away.
There will also be problems, especially in tourist places, like people trying to get more money from you, because they think you are the rich foreigner. But it gives you a chance to practice your bargaining skills with them. And compared to European prices many things in China are really cheap.
There are so many clubs in China and of course they want to attract more customers. One way of doing that is to be ‘the place where the foreigners go’. So many places will give foreigners a table and free alcohol. But careful, don’t expect to be invited all the time and don’t drink too much. ;-P
I think my face looks pretty average, but in China I have heard dozens of people say, that I am so pretty. Maybe they just want to be nice, or they are fascinated by my different looks. They especially like blonde hair, curly hair, different eye colors, tall guys and our ‘big and long noses’. Well I’m not sure if I should take people saying my nose looks pretty as a compliment. It’s always nice to hear some flattery, so be careful and don’t become conceited.
Want to experience being a laowai in China? Then come for an internship and Apply Now!
How To Conduct Yourself at a Chinese Business Dinner
Philippe Touzin, the Zhuhai Office Manager has many great tips on how to behave at a Chinese Business Dinner, as he often goes on business dinners himself and has now learnt all of the little tricks on how to conduct yourself well.
- It is important to be extremely respectful. Imagine that this is a dinner that you are having with your very conservative grandparents – you have to be very polite and have good manners.
- If it is a formal dinner then you need to toast your drink with the eldest at the table, as he is the top of the hierarchy. The second priority to toast is the company’s boss.
- If ever you are going to give a speech at the table and need to address the people at the table, make sure that you know their hierarchy so that you address the top of the hierarchy first and make your way down the hierarchy properly. If you are not sure of the order of the hierarchy then you need to address them generally – never try to guess the order! The Chinese are very aware of protocol, and this is the easiest way to offend them and look bad.
- General guidelines to abide by if you are sitting next to the VIP (the boss or eldest at the table)
- If you are sitting to his left, you are considered to be his wingman. It is your job to make sure that he has the best food on his plate, that he has the best pieces of food, and you are the one to put the food in his bowl by using the communal chopsticks that come with the dishes. You need to ensure that his drink is always full and that he has everything he might need/want (i.e. if he needs a napkin for example).
- If the VIP is going to make a speech or stands up to toast, you stop whatever you were doing and not disrupt him – be as respectful as possible. When raising your glass to toast the VIP, the rim of your glass needs to go below the rim of his glass to show respect (basically to show that you are below him).
- Generally taboo/sensitive topics that are not to be mentioned are: Japan/Korea, foreign policy, visas, etc.
- The point of the business meeting is to try and create a relationship with the people you are sitting with. You want to get to know them a bit better personally; you want to build a trust relationship with the party – business is not to be discussed at dinner. Dinner is for getting to know them better on a personal level and for them to get to know you.
- If you do not want to drink alcohol at the dinner, then you have to state this from the beginning and be very adamant about it. Otherwise, they will keep forcing it on you. Once you start drinking and try to pull out they will not let you – it is either full-force drinking or no drinking at all. When they want to toast, you cannot refuse it (even if you are already very drunk, you will have to continue if they want to toast with you).
- If you are the only foreigner, they will try to get you really drunk. One of them will want to toast with you to do a shot, and then the next will also want to toast with you until you go around the table and toast with everyone – so each of them really only had one shot, but you’ve had ten at this point. So be prepared for this!
- The only way to get out of it is if by the third or fourth shot, the rest of the party is already tipsy and having a lot of fun, so you can start messing around with them (in a polite way!) by smiling and being very courtly, but turn it into a toast for everybody (“everybody cheers!”) and they will feel happy because they will see that you are having fun and in turn they will be having fun. You will still be drinking just as much, but at least you won’t be getting drunk all on your own!
- If you are going to pay the bill, then you have to sit facing the door, and this will mean that you are the VIP and you will be paying for the bill. If you are not going to pay the bill then do not sit facing the door!
If you are paying the bill, then when dinner is coming to an end, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and then secretly go pay the bill. Then when you get back suggest if they are ready to leave and then they will be surprised that you already took care of the bill and they will be very thankful.
- Always order more dishes than needed, and bring two bottles of foreign wine/whiskey as a gift. If you go to a Chinese person’s house for dinner, the same rules apply (depending on how well you know the people) and you always need to bring a gift of fruit.
- Bring at least 15 name cards with you. Chinese business people love to hand out their business cards and it is good to have yours in turn to give out. It is also a great way of networking and getting your name out there.
- If you are at a banquet, make sure to go around to each table and toast with them.
- “Ganbei” (干杯) – shot (bottoms up!)
- “Yi kou yi kou” (一口一口) – one mouthful one mouthful (for when you don’t want to drink the whole glass in one shot)
- When paying the bill, even if you have been invited to the dinner and know that you are not going to be paying for the food, it is good to fight over who is paying for the bill. Don’t fight too hard, but show that you want to pay, this is polite. When eventually they pay, make sure to say “thank you” a couple of times!
- In general, if you are not sure what to do, just have a look at what the others are doing around you and just behave as they are. Be as attentive and observant as possible.
Do you want to gain intercultural experience in conducting business meetings in China? Apply directly on our website or send us your application to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Saturday we went to Laoshan for some hiking. Laoshan means ‘mountain lao’ and it is located in the east of Qingdao.
Our Group was guided by Mu & Richard, two ‘Qingdaorens’ who love hiking. Although they are professional guides, they have never been in charge of such a big group of foreigners. We met at 7:45h next to Hisense Plaza where the bus collected us. After 40 minutes, we arrived at the bottom of Laoshan.
It took us nearly 3 hours walking, climbing and abseiling to get to our picnic area where we ordered ‘di san xian’ (地三鲜) and ‘ji’ (鸡). In fact, we didn’t know that this ‘ji’ (chicken) was still alive at the time. But it wasn’t our only weird experience with animals that day. Some of us found snakes in big glasses which were filled with alcohol. The owner of this restaurant told us that this special snake-alcohol would make a man stronger and macho, so some of us drunk it – but sadly didn´t feel any difference!
Right next to the little picnic area was a lovely lake where we all went swimming. The water was fresh and crystal clear. After this nice stop, we were ready to go all the way back. The way down as expected, was much easier than the way up. We also had more time to admire the amazing view.
We all enjoyed the trip, had a great time and are looking forward to the next one,which is likely to be to the Huangdao beach.