The Laowai Complex

One of the first things I noticed about China on arriving was the obvious ‘obsession’ with foreigners. In smaller cities especially, foreigners are met with stares, questions and the comment “you are so beautiful/handsome”. Chinese people are curious. Their culture, idea of beauty and media are all focused on the idea of the foreign, specifically (although not limited to) the white foreigner.

Women are encouraged to cover up for fear of tanning; beauty products claim to ‘whiten skin’eyelid operations to make eyes look bigger are a popular procedure and foreigners are often used as models to promote Chinese products and companies.

It can be daunting at first, and it is received in different ways depending on the person in question.

Unfortunately, a popular response to such attention is to believe you, as a foreigner, are automatically elevated and are  than Chinese people. I often hear foreigners talk in derogatory tones with regards to China and behaviour of Chinese people. Recent comments have included “why do Chinese people eat this food?!”, “Chinese people are so rude” and “I’m so glad our manager isn’t Chinese”.

To the foreigners that frequently make these kinds of comments in the presence of Chinese people, I would like to point out that you are living in their country out of your own free choice and will. To move to another country and start telling its citizens how to live seems a tad rude, don’t you think?

Let’s reverse the roles a little here…

“American and English people are so annoying. They’re rude and obnoxious; I’m so glad we don’t have a foreign manager”.

Ask yourself, do you find this offensive? Disrespectful? Do you like to hear people talk about you in this way? Yes, living in a foreign country can be difficult. It’s challenging and frustrating – but you choose to live here. You choose to eat the food that you love to complain about. You choose to insult the people who have spent their lives here.

As a foreigner in a totally alien country and culture, I understand your frustrations. Just be careful when and where you choose to air them, and do not make the mistake of thinking that your nationality or skin colour entitle you to special treatment. 

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