China is not a melting pot. In places like the United States and Australia all but a small portion of the resident population is from someplace else. In China just the opposite is true. Out of 1.3 billion people, there are fewer than 600,000 foreigners, or .05% of the resident population, according to government statistics
Even the native population is relatively homogenous. There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, whose ethnic cultures are both celebrated and protected by the Chinese Constitution. Under Chinese law all ethnic groups are equal, granting each the right to self-rule, protection of their culture, and the right to speak and write their own language.
Twenty-three of these ethnic groups, however, have populations of less than 100,000 people. Only eighteen of the minority ethnic groups have a population in excess of one million people and the largest among them, the Zhuang, have a population of just over 15 million. Fully 93% of all Chinese, in fact, belong to one ethnic group – the Han Chinese.
Everyone outside of these 56 ethnic groups is a foreigner, a distinction that has gone by many names over the years, but a distinction that is nonetheless clear and ingrained in the culture. Chinese/foreigner. Chinese/foreigner. Chinese/foreigner.
The Chinese are admittedly conflicted by the idea of foreigners. At times foreigners are idolized as paragons of personal qualities that the Chinese would like to see more evidence of in their own society (e.g. charity). Sometimes, however, foreigners are demonized, and rightfully so in many cases, as the embodiment of the lowest and worst instincts of the human race (e.g. condescension, chauvinism, hedonism).
Either way, whether by conscious choice or lack of practice, the Chinese are not assimilative in their attitude toward foreigners. If you are not Chinese but speak the language fluently you are merely a foreigner who speaks Mandarin. If you were born on Chinese soil you are merely a foreigner who was born in China. And if you have lived in China for thirty years you are simply a foreigner who has lived in China a long time
Being a foreigner has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that expectations are low. You are a foreigner. They don’t expect you to understand or appreciate their culture. They are, as a rule, quite forgiving of cultural faux pas. And the waitress will not laugh at you when she sees you struggling to pick up a peanut with your chopsticks. She will just bring you a spoon
If you’ve lived here for a while, however, as I have, the isolation does tend to weigh on you. I have Chinese friends. Many I feel very close to. They admire and respect me and I feel the same toward them. I am nonetheless, not one of them, and I know that line will never be crossed.
Newcomers, moreover, may feel disquieted by behaviors that long-term residents ultimately become accustomed to. They may, for example, still find themselves the subject of long and blatant stares, particularly if they venture away from the urban areas and popular tourist destinations where foreigners are less commonplace. Not so much because they are such an oddity as the fact that the Chinese do not consider it rude to stare, a cultural trait that some Westerners find unsettling but which I have come to appreciate as refreshingly transparent. Westerners stare too. We just do it more deceptively.
There is prejudice, of course, although it is seldom mean-spirited or judgmental. Nonetheless, I know that when I inquire about the price of an item I am interested in buying the shopkeeper is sure to quote a price considerably higher than it would be for a Chinese shopper.
Things are changing, of course, as the world flocks to witness the miracle of modern China. When my family first arrived here my two daughters were 4 and 6-years old and with their fair skin and heads of thick blonde hair they stood little chance of blending into a crowd. People inevitably wanted to have their picture taken with them, to pick them up, or rub their hair for good luck. Often they attracted a crowd.
Sometimes it was enchanting for all involved. We once attended a Temple Fair during the Spring Festival holiday and my youngest daughter, then 5-years old, I recall, wanted to play a carnival game of chance involving a center pit filled with small bowls into which you launched a large beach ball. If the ball ultimately rested in one of the bowls you could win a prize, the size and value of which depended on the color of the bowl. The center bowl was red and worth a massive stuffed bear, few of which, I’m sure, were ever given out. After waiting for a turn at the railing (Like everywhere during Spring Festival, the fair was mobbed.) the attendant invited my daughter to stand on the railing to give her a fighting chance of even hitting the big table filled with bowls. And she gave the ball a fling, seeming to hardly notice where she was flinging it. Sure enough, however, it came to rest in the red bowl. And the Chinese in attendance went absolutely wild, jumping and cheering as if they had personally won a large crate of gold bullion. You couldn’t help but be carried away in the genuine warmth and enthusiasm.
The excessive joy, of course, wasn’t all attributable to the pleasure of seeing a foreigner win. The cute little foreign girl, to their way of thinking, was clearly a source of good luck that all in her presence would share. In the most real sense, then, she made everyone’s day. She won a stuffed bear as large as herself (which Daddy got to carry for the rest of the day, of course) and the Chinese who had been present went through the rest of the day with a confident spring in their step in the knowledge that something good was sure to happen.
My daughters’ foreign celerity, however, did present some challenges to their mother and me. I often reminded them that we are unofficial ambassadors of our homeland, the United States, and that we have a special responsibility to behave properly and to be cordial to our hosts. And, for the most part, my daughters have always been happy to go along.
After the 30th photograph on a hot summer afternoon, however, or being picked up for the umpteenth time, they ultimately needed a break. One time I even had to rent a boat and take them out on a lake in order to get a short respite from all the attention.
Ultimately, however, they were always ready for more. After one sightseeing outing a few months after our arrival, in fact, my youngest daughter seemed a bit out of sorts, so we asked her if anything was wrong. She looked forlorn, to say the least. And she finally shared the reason why. “Nobody tried to pick me up today.”
Alas, the trials and tribulations of the cute young foreigner in China.
Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.