Tyler is on his first trip to China, participating in the Princeton in Beijing summer program, and reflects on the more awkward aspects of being a foreigner.
A striking characteristic of China (and imminently noticeable when visiting) is that the vast majority of the population is made up of the Han ethnicity. This makes international travelers and students somewhat of an oddity to many Chinese people. Even in cities, where seeing foreigners is not rare, I still have encountered a lot of curiosity as I have wandered the streets of Beijing. A few stories come to mind.
While eating dinner with a classmate, I noticed a middle-aged Chinese man staring at our table. By the time we had nearly finished eating, I saw he had taken out his phone and was taking pictures of me. I asked him “uhhh…Ni hao?” He started asking me where I was from and what I was doing here (something also very common). He then forced his way to my table, sat down and showed me the pictures he took of me. He had my friend take a picture of us together so he could “give to his 10 year old daughter.” I replied that I was famous and named “Justin Bieber.” I’m still not sure what was going on there.
I’ve also been bombarded with requests for money. As a foreigner, it is automatically assumed that I am full of wealth and riches. The most interesting request was from a mother and daughter who asked if I could speak Chinese. When I told the mother yes, she told me a story of how she lost her purse and her child was starving, or as she put it “hungry to death.” Her daughter looked downtrodden and sad while her mother spoke. The problem was her story wasn’t very convincing since they both appeared pretty wealthy, even by American standards (which could be a consequence of her fooling enough foreigners). I told her I only had three RMB and a 100 RMB bill. She said she would settle with 100 RMB (approximately $20 US dollars). I gave her three RMB. I’ve lost much of my sympathy and gullibility since unintentionally buying a fake iPhone, and subsequently having that same phone stolen. But that’s another story.
Coincidentally, our class just wrapped up a lesson on Chinese people’s views of foreigners. They have plenty of derogatory terms for us, including the foreign devil. Some of that sentiment still exists in China, although my encounters have been with Chinese people who are antagonistic toward the American government, rather than the American people. The most glaring instance was a shopkeeper who ranted to me about America interfering in China’s affairs and how America can’t match the greatness of China. I told her I think both countries have their beauty.
For the most part though, nowadays Chinese people settled on calling us “lao wai,” which literally translated means old foreigner. I’ll take that over foreign devil.