As Matt and I walked back from dinner the other night, our ears were once again graced with the low murmuring of locals whispering “laowai!” – formerly a derogatory word for foreigners which has, in more recent years, become acceptable in colloquial language here – as is the custom in most small towns in China where foreigners are rare. Matt turned to me and said, “You know, you’d think we’ve been here long enough that they would get over it,” which reminded me of my experience six years ago, when I first moved to a small Chinese town in southern Hunan Province. After living there for a year, I still got the bewildered stares, teasing “hello!” calls, and the ubiquitous announcement that a laowai was coming through whenever I walked through town. I’m not aware of any studies on the subject, but I would venture to guess that a foreigner living in a town such as this hears the word “laowai” more often than the Chinese term for “hello” at least five to one. It is a constant reminder that no matter how long we stay here, we are always going to be outsiders, sparking curiosity, amusement, and/or some level of conflict wherever we go. This reality of constant foreignness is a source of a roller coaster of positive and negative emotions, which, as counterintuitive as it may seem, often become more intense the longer one stays.
While we may be stared at and seen as targets for scams and over-charging for goods, there are also benefits to being forever foreign. As guests in a country that takes being a good host extremely seriously, those who do know us look out for us in a way that I could never imagine anyone doing in the US, with the exception of family. Wherever we go, people often try to help us; whether it’s handing a spoon to a foreigner who has not yet mastered chopsticks, showing the proper grip on a ping-pong paddle, or making sure that we get home safely after treating us to barbecued rabbit and drinks. Sometimes it’s as if the whole town is looking after us to ensure that nothing bad happens. That is a comforting feeling, and one which I have never experienced outside of small town China. At the same time, as an independent-minded American, even the positive side of standing out can wear on me much like an over-protective parent.
There is a balance somewhere in the celebrity-like experience that foreigners have here, but in the six years since I first moved to a small Chinese town, I’m not sure that I have found it. To be sure, the calls of “laowai!” and “hello!” don’t bother me like they used to. In fact, I frequently don’t notice them anymore unless another foreigner walking with me mentions it. I have even become accustomed to the “over-protective parent” aspect of Chinese culture, embracing it as much as possible, and politely declining as best I can when I have had enough. I guess it is just the idea of being foreign forever that I struggle with. Forever is an awfully long time.