Foreigners still remain strangers in China

Updated: 2011-07-11 10:43

By Geeta Kochhar (

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

For decades China was an isolated nation due to the suppression and oppression by foreigners in various forms. It had severe turmoil and civil wars to reach towards the sunny light. The sunny light called 'reform and opening-up' initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 opened China's doors to the outside world. It was just a matter of a few years before China's economy flourished to gain the momentum of global growth. Today, China stands tall and competes with global players. The numbers of rich in China has superseded the numbers in many developing nations. The modern infrastructure encapsulates its march toward a modern lifestyle; and the rising social standard in cities mesmerizes those who visit China. Yet, the common Chinese find it amusing to see the presence of foreigners.

The term "laowai" (老外) was used to refer to all the foreigners when they were felt to be a strange presence in the Chinese society. With the latest figures from National Bureau of Statistics revealing that by the end of last year, 600,000 foreigners reside, this term is still in common parlance. A sight of a foreigner amuses even a Chinese kid, who will be seen shouting "laowai", even if this sounds annoying to some. A walking foreigner in many places of China is still strange for many ordinary Chinese. Everything about the foreigner becomes important starting from what one wears to what one carries. Probably to adapt the styles or to make a bit of fun, a foreigner in China is still a strange creature.

With the spread and popularity of Chinese language, many foreigners can now speak good Chinese. In fact, it is a must for the survival of foreigners in China. However, a simple "nihao" (你好) uttered from the mouth of a foreigner in proper sound and tone, and any ordinary Chinese will have an immediate reaction "your Chinese is very good" (你汉语说得真不错). In case, one really speaks good Chinese, then one has to be ready to face the later part – which country do you belong to? How come your Chinese is so good? What are you doing in China? If one passes in this general aptitude test, then a range of personal questions follow – are you married; if married, how many kids; if unmarried, why don't you find a Chinese girl or a Chinese boy, I can help introduce; what is your age etc.. Are Chinese talkative? Yes, for the sake of understanding the life of a foreigner, almost all Chinese are talkative.

The year 1995 was the time when the FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate) was totally abolished. Before that "People's Money" was so protected that the possession by a foreigner was considered illegal. The use was also limited to designated hotel and shopping centers like the Friendship store (友谊商店), where foreign goods were specially sold. Besides, foreigners were to buy special high-class tickets to travel by train to any place in China. Hotels were as limited and restricted as the university dormitories meant specifically for foreigners. Decades have passed, but even today many a times a foreigner would be told that one is not allowed to stay in a hotel below three-star. Reasons differ, then it was being scared of a foreigner; now it is the image of China. No matter how one looks at it, the issue lies in the treatment of a foreigner among the ordinary Chinese.

Even after more than a decade of reform and opening-up, foreigners were not so prominent in most cities; while there was a flood of Koreans and Japanese to study Chinese language. In 1990s, Shenyang was one such highly industrialized city where apart from Japanese and Koreans, Russians were present in huge numbers, probably due to the proximity and trade with Russia. Needless to mention, the site of other Asians, particularly from India, was strange. Ordinary Chinese would often indulge in betting over the appearance of an Indian, confusing them with a person from Xinjiang. The issue at times would reach boiling point where a person would be sort of kidnapped in the crowd to ascertain the true identity. Following is the usual curiosity over the strange national dress with utterances of "hao wanr" (好玩儿) and at times the pulling and lifting of dresses to ascertain the manner of wearing. Does one feel awful? Probably that is not the concern of most ordinary Chinese even in a public place.

With the increasing presence of foreigners today in China, things should have changed. But change is not always for the good. Things have improved in some cities where a foreigner is a common site, but what about small cities and rural areas. Is it the fear factor inculcated among the Chinese or is it the nature of Chinese curiosity? Be it eating in a public place to shopping in an ordinary place, foreigners still remain strangers. Worst is the feeling of being caught by the young educated Chinese in universities or the center places of cities for the sake of learning good English. Friendliness begins from there, the Chinese believe; while the foreigners would scream to be left in peace. Inquisitiveness is human.

Dr. Geeta Kochhar is a Visiting Fellow at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. She is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. She could be reached at The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily Website.