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China Daily Website

How to survive as a foreigner

Updated: 2012-05-29 12:25
By Berlin Fang ( chinadaily.com.cn)

Beijing Symphony Orchestra fired Oleg Vedernikov, a Russian cellist who was videotaped swearing at a Chinese woman on a train from Shenyang to Beijing. A reporter in China asked how I felt about the issue, in particular whether I think we Chinese overreact when foreigners misbehave.

In this case, the Beijing Symphony Orchestra probably overreacted, especially after Vedernikov openly apologized by video. The woman in the video wasn't without fault either. When annoyed by Vedernikov putting his feet on the back of her seat, she resorted to loud accusations and hit the man's feet with a newspaper. Then she threw a bottle at him. That's when the Russian started using bad language. Things might have been different if she had asked politely. It was initially the Russian's fault but then, aren't we supposed to be famous for being a country of courtesy?

The timing was rather bad for Vedernikov to behave like that, as general anti-foreign sentiment was on the rise over a territorial dispute in southern China and public outrage over the incident of a British man allegedly molesting a woman in Beijing. Against such a backdrop, quarrels with a foreigner can quickly turn sour as people may project patriotic sentiments on to an otherwise normal conflict erupting any day between two individuals. This has happened historically and elsewhere in the world.

I have read stories of foreigners describing their experiences living in China. One recent book I read is Peter Hessler's River Town. Hessler gives an accurate depiction of the dilemma of Chinese perception of foreigners in China: Sometimes these foreigners (laowai) were blindly admired and, at other times, equally blindly rejected. In any case, they are not simply treated for what they are, as individuals who may or may not embody the "national characteristics" we read or hear about. One has to know that China is a rather monolithic nation with few immigrants from other countries. It is only recently that people start to pour in from other countries to seek opportunity during China's economic boom. Still, the majority of people have little to no experience dealing with people from other countries. Without a proper perspective, people may think they are fighting for the glory of the country when in fact he or she is simply dealing with an average Joe from America or Oleg from Russia, who represents his country no more than they represent China.

I was then asked by the reporter if I have had any similar experience living as a foreigner in America. I don't know. I might have been rude at times without knowing it for people may have dismissed it as quickly as they observed it. Nobody has thrown a bottle or newspaper at me yet. More interestingly, as Irish-American author Joseph O'Neill writes in Netherland, you don't feel like a foreigner in places such as New York. Nobody knows the difference. Everybody else could be a foreigner too.

In other places, such as West Virginia and Oklahoma, where I have lived, people are usually polite toward me, if not always curious, even though foreigners are fewer in these places. As one of my American friends confessed, Americans may be biased against certain groups but, generally, they treat individuals from those groups with kindness. That's how goodwill starts to grow between people. I hope that we, too, can develop this kind of easy attitude to foreigners whose paths we happen to cross in China. Do not treat them as laowai, or symbols of the countries they come from. Treat them for what they are, as individuals just like us.

This being said, I do know that for foreigners there are social norms to learn and adjustments to make to stay out of trouble. First, learn about the culture in which you will be living to avoid obvious taboos. In China, putting your feet above somebody's head is rather insulting, although it may be acceptable in another culture. There might not be travel books about where to place your feet during a train ride but usually you can take cues from fellow passengers. Second, try to get to know the people you will be dealing with instead of cocooning yourself in a small circle of compatriots. I really admire Peter Hessler for reaching out to various groups while teaching as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. He has developed great insights into China, even for a Chinese reader. It is tempting for a foreigner to hide among countrymen in a foreign land but, in the long term, that creates alienation and a sense of exile. Natives do not welcome foreigners who do not care to associate with them. Third, learn about the buttons you can push to take you right to the level of hostility. I have learned the hard way that no matter how harshly Americans criticize their politicians, foreigners should try to hold their tongues. If you have made yourself familiar to them, that's a different story. Just wait until they do not treat you as a foreigner any more.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.