how to really #GetAtHome in this world

Being the Foreigner

I happened to virtually run into Ellis of when I had just found my way of getting to China, and she seemed to not find a way after all. Since then, as her plans worked out too, we have been comparing our impressions of (being in) China.
Recently, she posted about the way Chinese approach foreigners, and it got me to remember that I had wanted to write a bit about this issue, but hadn’t yet done so.

What issue, really?
Well, that of feeling at home in a foreign country is a little bit of it, the main part is simply that of being easily recognizable as a foreigner, and the way people react to foreigners.

In China, this is a particularly interesting issue. Both because one does stick out, and because people react in very specific ways: Comments of 老外 (“foreigner”) and in a case like mine also 外教(“foreign teacher”), sometimes accompanied by pointing and stares, are very common.
It can be quite funny with schoolchildren trying out their English, it can be quite annoying when people check out your supermarket cart wondering what the foreigner is buying.

(I must admit to having done the same thing, wondering what other foreigners or Chinese are buying…
And actually, I must admit to having become so accustomed to having Chinese faces around, I sometimes almost want to point and exclaim that this face really looks different when I suddenly see my own face reflected somewhere.
While I’m at it: I have to say that I felt more foreign and vulnerable when I was walking around Harlem.)

What can get under your skin a bit more (just check out Ellis’ post…), is the Chinese propensity for commenting on someone’s looks. Such comments, especially to a person’s face, are pretty rare in America and also in Central Europe – in Northern Europe, I hadn’t really noticed; in Southern Europe, it’s just a part of normal speech.
Well, China is a bit like Southern Europe when it comes to that, except strangely gender-equal in this respect: guys also get comments of ?? (handsome). Yesterday, just after reading Ellis’ post, I heard the first “lovely” which was ever directed at me…
Well, it can get somewhat annoying. I have become rather too good at recognizing such comments even at a distance. At the same time, I must say that I just shake them off… seems easier for a guy, and a foreign teacher mainly meeting students: I certainly don’t get the innuendo, rarely even get asked for my number.

Actually, in thinking and talking about it, I found that I can take this very easily:
I just consider it a part of customary Chinese ways of chatting (I’m not quite sure it is, but I have heard quite enough comments by Chinese, about the looks of another Chinese, to think so).

What I have more trouble getting a grip on is actually the American habit of greeting somebody by “asking” “How are you?” It is almost always used instead of “Hi,” without any interest whatsoever in the other person’s state of health. So, I know it’s also just customary, but not even giving somebody the time to say “Fine, thank you” just seems very wrong to me – and I would not want to give that answer when the truth is probably a bit more complicated.

Being the foreigner can also open up a very different perspective on immigrants to one’s own country: The often-criticized refusal to integrate into the host culture is suddenly something a person has to consider for him-/herself.

In the end, I personally mainly find that my anthropology teachers were right: They suggested that the best students of cultural anthropology are those who don’t quite feel at home in the country they are supposed to be a part of, being too aware of the artifice that goes into the supposed naturalness of any culture’s basic tenets.
(Basically, it’s like the state of “reverse culture shock” – the culture shock one can get when returning from somewhere else and noticing, for the first time maybe, that one’s own culture can seem pretty strange. But as a state of mind.)

I’d rather be the foreigner, suffer some downsides, get conscious of my own cultural baggage and decide which parts of my heritage to uphold and which to discard, and learn to fit in somewhere else to the extent to which I find it feasible and want to do it.


    • ellis on 2008/12/09 at 07:21


    my internet goes out for a few days and look what i miss! good post (and not just because you mention me). it’s very interesting to hear all this from an anthropological and a european standpoint. i never thought about the impications of ‘how are you?’ i still get thrown off by ‘have you eaten?’ but yes, ‘how are you?’ is employed rather shallowly. you’re not supposed to say how you really are.
    i agree, i would rather be the foreigner. even though it’s hard, it’s so much more interesting and rewarding, and you get to learn in the process. that’s an interesting comment about the best cultural anthropology students, and though i’m not an anthro student at all, that definitely resonates with me, and i think that those of us who feel we don’t fit in where we ‘should’ are flexible and open to change because we don’t identify deeply with engrained ideals and cultural norms. sometimes i wonder if i actually fit anywhere, but i guess i’ll have to find out!

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