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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bored Laowai

I’ve been reading Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing, about her experiences working on the set of a Chinese soap opera. She tells her story with wit & charm, & I find myself smiling & nodding as I read because her story is more about life as a foreigner in China than about being a soap star, & I can relate to a lot of what she says.

I was sitting at Starbucks on my day off, quietly chuckling to myself as I read her take on conversations with other foreigners:

Expatriate small talk ran a predictable gamut. There was “How long have you been in Beijing?” usually accompanied by the subtext “I’ve been here longer.” Or the more direct “How is your Chinese?” which carried with it the thinly veiled “Mine is better.” Finally, I dreaded most the “What are you doing in China?” and my embarrassed response that I was working in public relations.

I’ve had this same conversation with countless foreigners. Of course I substitute “teaching English” for “working in public relations”, but I feel the same condescension from other expats as DeWoskin did.

It seems that if you’re teaching English in China, you’re considered an inexperienced newbie, fresh off the fabled boat. You haven’t yet found something more worthwhile to do – like starting an import-export company or opening a bar where you can hire karaoke bands & flirt with the locals.

As I sat at Starbucks sipping my coffee, Christmas music wafting through the sound system, a gingerbread cookie warm in my belly, a good-looking guy, 50-something, sat at the table next to mine & pulled out his MacBook.

After a few surreptitious glances in my direction, he leaned over & asked me what I was reading. I showed him the book cover & he said, “Oh… Isn’t that a bored laowai (foreigner) book?” What do you mean?, I asked. “Isn’t that just like every other book about China – you know, with stories about taxi drivers & street food?” I thought of my blog & quickly looked away.

The cloud I had been soaring on because I had found a book that understood me slowly drifted back to earth & deposited me there. How embarrassing to be called out as the newbie that I am. I pretended to continue reading, but couldn’t stop thinking of what he had said.

I’ve been in China for less than a year – a newbie indeed. But for me, most of the joy of living life abroad is the newness of it – discovering things that are different from home, & gaining a new perspective on my own life while I’m at it.

Perhaps what’s really regrettable is getting over that feeling of excitement & wonder – to lose that feeling of inexperience in a foreign country. My friend at the coffee shop may be a “bored laowai” who knows more about living in China than I do, but at least I can still appreciate the taxi drivers & street food. I think life in China is fascinating, & I’m not ashamed to admit it.

6 comments:

scott said...

Really? There is an expat pecking order in China? You have to deal with that kind of conceit? I don't remember that in Japan. However, I guess I didn't really associate with expats. It was easy to make Japanese friends. Anyway, next time you are asked these questions you should either 1) Answer in Spanish and when they don't understand, reply "What you only know one foreign language??! (Note, don't try this on a european though), or 2) Say you have several published articles in . When they respond 'Really?!!' admit no, but laughingly say you just say that to bring conceited speakers down off their high-horse.

I think either would bring 'em down to size. What do you think? It'll work!! :-)

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Nancy Lewis said...

Ha ha! I love your comments in Japanese - even though I have no idea what they say :)

When are you going to get on Lang-8 so I can read some of your Spanish? You can sign up with more than one language too, so you can practice writing in Japanese while you're at it ;)

scott said...

I know, I want to, but I'm afraid I'll sign up and not make time to write. How are you doing at it?

Nancy Lewis said...

There's no requirement for how often you write. It's like keeping an online blog of your writing in the language you're learning. You just post whenever you have time.

I post about once a week. I find that I write more in Chinese than I do in Spanish because my Chinese thoughts are shorter. When I write in Spanish I want to write something longer, which I don't always make time for.

Chris said...

Ohoho! You're absolutely right! This does happen often, and it's a little hard not to get caught up in it when you meet someone who really is F.O.B. and you want to show off/help them stay out of trouble.

I think street food RULES. And I also think laowai books are boring. But you should certainly help yourself to anything you love! It's a difficult transition and you need to keep your sanity. One really cool thing about being a badass is you'll be brushing shoulders with pioneers of industry etc. who will be on Very Important Missions to China. This is a good opportunity, both to score free beers, and to eventually piss them off with politics. Roll with it!

You will meet a great many Experienced World Travelers (even of the backpacking variety) who seem to have garnered no joy from their travels -- or none that couldn't otherwise have been yielded by a frat party back home. I think you can navigate your way through that minefield just fine...

Nancy Lewis said...

Thanks for the encouragement Chris :)