What is it like to be a foreigner in China? I think I am now in a position to give some kind of answer, but first let me explain the meaning of the title of this post. The most commonly used word for a foreigner in China is 外国人 （waiguoren), the literal meaning of which is "outside-country-person". There is also another colloquial word which is very often used to indicate foreigners: 老外 （laowai), which literally means "old-outside". Even though it is a very colloquial expression which is not used in official circumstances, it is not a term of abuse. In my understanding, "old" is used in the sense of "good old". During my time in China, I have heard people call me laowai more often in small towns and the countryside, and waiguoren more often in Beijing and other big cities.
So anyway, what is it like to be a foreigner in China? First of all, let me state from the onset that I have never encountered any outright hostility as a foreigner in this country, and I think such incidents are very rare, if they happen at all. What is certainly true, on the other hand, is that most Chinese people have hardly any experience in dealing with foreigners. The reason is not hard to understand. Until recently, China was a country with practically no resident foreigners. Even nowadays, the number of foreigners is infinitesimal in comparison to the entire population of China. Even so, the amount of foreigners living in China is of course getting larger and larger, especially in the main cities. It is calculated that there are now 110.000 foreigners in Beijing staying for longer than six months, according to today's "China Daily". Of course, this is still a small proportion of the 10 million inhabitants of the city, but it is far more than there were just a few years ago. The largest community is the South Korean one, followed by the US one. This doesn't surprise me, since Koreans are well known to be numerous in Beijing, and it is quite common to see Korean writing around. The number of foreign students in China is also increasing rapidly, although of course the proportion is still very small. In Beijing there are supposed to be about 30.00 foreign students.
It is also getting more common to meet foreigners who are fluent in Chinese, especially with the growing number of people who come here specially to study it. Twenty years ago, a Canadian using the Chinese name of Da Shan became a superstar of the Chinese entertainment industry, entirely because he could speak unbelievably good idiomatic Chinese. He has admitted that nowadays it would not be possible for him to become famous so easily, simply because it has become too commonplace to meet Westeners who speak fluent Chinese.
Most of the foreigners in Beijing live concentrated in certain areas, especially Chaoyang district, where the embassies are located. Another area with a lot of foreigners, especially young ones, is Wudaokou, around which there are many universities. In these areas, it is easy to find international restaurants and shops catering to foreigners. Luckily, my campus is not in any of these areas. It is located right on the edge of Beijing, in an area which was open countryside just a few decades ago. Most of the foreigners I see in the area around my campus are associated with my university in one way or another (and even in my campus there are only a few dozen foreign students).
In Beijing it is by now almost possible to feel that you are just one of the crowd when you are walking around on the street. It is very unusual to get stared at because you are a foreigner. Even though I am still usually the only white face around when I take the bus, or go to the supermarket, I don't feel that I attract much special attention. No doubt, just ten or fifteen years ago this would not have been so.
Of course, China isn't all like Beijing. Travelling around China I have found that, unsurprisingly, the more I move away from big urban centers, the more attention I draw. Generally speaking, in big cities across China I have usually been ignored, even in cities which are far less international than Beijing, like Chongqing and Nanning. However, in small cities I usually begin to draw stares and startled looks. In Qijiang, the town where I use to teach English, I would sometimes get people staring at me as if I had just landed from Mars, not even trying to conceal their surprise. Quite conceivably, I was the first foreigner they had seen in their lives, or at least one of the first. Then again, in the whole town there were exactly two resident foreigners while I was staying there: me and an Australian who was teaching English in a different school.
Of course, in little villages and the countryside the attention a foreigner draws is even bigger. It is not impossible to find a little crowd gathering around you. Of course, the way the foreigner looks also makes a difference. Black people tend to attract more attention than white people, since they are rarer and perhaps seem more outlandish to the Chinese. If you are very tall, and have a big beard or blond hair, or other phisical features which the Chinese don't usually have, you will be more noticeable. Personally, I find that I draw less stares than my Dutch classmate, who is very tall and has long blond hair.
Although foreigners in Beijing may not be something unusual any longer, it is still true that as a foreigner in China you are never just an ordinary member of the public. Until a few years ago, foreigners where only allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods and buildings, although this has changed. In universities, foreign students live in special dorms which are reserved for them. The Chinese students live in their own dorms where the conditions are much worse. In my campus, undergraduate Chinese students live six to a room, and they have to go to a separate building to have a shower, where they have to pay for the hot water. The foreign students, on the other hand, share double or single rooms, en suite bathrooms, and a kitchen on every floor. Perhaps it is true that few foreigners would want to live under the conditions the Chinese students endure. However, this division clearly means that foreign students and Chinese ones remain quite apart. It is the same in many aspects of life in China: foreigners don't and can't just live an ordinary life, in which the fact that they are foreigners plays no part.
As I mentioned, most Chinese people have never had any experience in dealing with foreigners, even in Beijing, and they are unable to see a foreigner as just another person. This does not mean that they are rude or unhelpful; on the contrary, they are often ridicolously helpful with foreigners, sometimes to a point where it is embarassing. They are often curious about foreign countries, but know very little about them, and if they have the chance they will always be happy to ask you about where you come from. University students in Beijing tend to know some English, but they are often extremely shy about speaking it to a foreigner, especially if they have never done so before, and do not feel confident enough to do so. It is common to meet people who can read English quite well, but have never had the chance to speak it before, and find it very difficult.
The ideas Chinese young people have about Western countries can be quite naive, despite (or because of) all the American films and TV series they watch. A lot of people seem to be convinced that everything in the West works better than in China, since the Western countries are the most developed in the world, and don't seem to be aware of the problems there are in the West. This naiveness also extends itself to the fact that most Chinese people are absolutely unaware of what foreigners do and don't know about China. They generally expect you to know nothing. The Chinese friend who accompanied me to visit Mao's mausoleum last year was surprised that I had heard of Chairman Mao. Another one was surprised that I had heard of the one-child policy. When I eat with Chinese people, they often comment on how well I can use chopsticks, even though learning to use chopsticks is actually very easy and virtually all foreigners who live here learn to do so at once.
This kind of naiveness and lack of experience with foreigners sometimes seems to lead the Chinese to imagine that humanity is divided into two groups, the Chinese and "the foreigners", and to talk about foreigners as if they were some big homogenous group (to be fair, I have heard people in lots of other countries talk about foreigners in exactly the same way). However, like I said earlier, I have not experienced any anti-foreigner hostility. The only country which I have heard Chinese people make negative remarks about time and again is Japan, which is not hard to understand, considering the fact that they have yet to apologize for the second world war. Despite the bitter memories of European colonialism, the West is basically admired for its high level of development and material success, something which the Chinese have great respect for. Other developing countries do not seem to figure very much on the minds of the Chinese. I have the feeling that Westeners are more highly respected in China than people from the developing world, although this is quite common in other countries too. However I have never heard of incidents of racist violence against foreigners in China, whether they be Japanese, African, American or whatever. What I do find is that quite a lot of foreigners retreat into the cocoon of the foreign community and have little interaction with Chinese people, so that they conserve their own prejudices and fixed ideas about China. Even within my campus, I find that few within the assorted collection of Asian, African and Middle Eastern foreign students have much social interaction with the Chinese outside the classroom or lab. Many of them do not seem to be particularly interested in trying, although there are some exceptions. Even though most of them had to study Chinese for a year before starting their courses, and so they can speak Chinese fluently, they are still not too interested in using this knowledge to try to understand something about the country they are in.