Sticky Expat Etiquette: Dealing with Other Foreigners in China

Jun 29, 2012 By Beth Green, eChinacities.com Comments (64)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Whenever you live in a culture that's not your own you can run into sticky etiquette situations. In China, these vary from how to use your chopsticks without getting black bean sauce all over your favourite shirt to selecting the proper title to give someone (are they a doctor, a professor or just a teacher?). But it's not only with the local population that expatriates can find themselves in an awkward social situation—what do you do when you meet another foreigner? How do you behave? Just because you probably share a common language, do you have to be friends?

1) The ostrich approach - I can't see you so you can't see me
At least one group on the social networking site Facebook says you don't. “Just Because We're LaoWai, Doesn't Mean We're Friends” has about 200 fans and group postings talk about 'guilt by association' when foreigners act poorly in small communities. But the reasons why one foreigner might snub another are wider than that. In world cities like London, New York or Berlin, the total population density makes it necessary to be on good social terms with everyone you encounter in one day. The 'head down, eyes forward' approach keeps you from getting into uncomfortable situations at home, so why not over here in China? Well, some would argue that you haven't come all the way around the world not to meet anyone. But then, if you do say hello, you're stuck. You'll have to exchange names, and where-are-you-from's and possibly even become friends. Did you come to China to meet another person from your same culture? Some people don't want to make friends with other foreigners because they're worried it will dilute their experience abroad.  

2) The blush and the silent hello
But people who wouldn't usually ignore strangers at home might have a hard time figuring out when it’s appropriate to put your head in the sand and when it isn't. The next type of greeting I've noticed is one I've often returned when surprised by someone. Imagine this: You go to the same noodle restaurant week after week for your bowl of la mian. The kitchen staff know you and understand your garbled order. They're over any previous feelings of surprise that a foreigner would be visiting their restaurant and it's all yours. It's your comfortable little kingdom. You sit and zone out while you eat, as you always do. Suddenly a delegation of Russian businessmen stride in, look you up and down, raise their hands and voices in greeting to you and quickly order their food. Before you're finished mouthing 'hello' around the hot noodles still on your chopsticks, they've gone to a different table and you are suddenly 'outed' as a foreigner, acknowledged as being different. Did they see your minute finger wave to them? Do they think that you've slighted them? Are they going to become regulars in this restaurant too?

3) The shopping encounter
Restaurants, as above, and shopping centers are the places I run into other foreigners the most. I'd been back in China only a day or so when I was hit with this next version of sticky expat etiquette. I was moving into my new apartment and I needed to get some sheets, towels and other home wares. Desperate not to make this errand a long one, I went to the local Wal-Mart and started filling my cart. 
I was testing a new pillow for cushy-ness and overall sleepability and chatting in my not-so-precise way with one of the legion of shop assistants when a foreign couple, around my age, rocked up with their trolley. “Hi there,” I said, in my friendliest American fashion. My town has more and more foreigners every year, but truthfully I haven't yet met many female foreigners. I'd like another girl to pal around with when my Chinese friends are busy. They looked at me, dubiously, grabbed a pillow at random, whispered 'hello' and were off as if their shopping cart was rocket-propelled. That's fine; it takes more than that to hurt my feelings. But then we ran in to each other again in the juice aisle. And again in the toilet paper section. And, of course, again at checkout. I tried smiling again, but they were obviously embarrassed and avoiding my gaze. So I wouldn't seem like a stalker, I hung back and let them leave the store well ahead of me. What if we'd been on the same bus?

4) Small Spaces - stuck in the elevator
Buses might be uncomfortable, but nowhere do you get as close to other people as in elevators. The first building my friend lived in in China was 30 stories high and had quite a few foreigners living in it—teachers, business people, language students. He lived on the 24th floor. The Chinese families that lived in the building seemed to mostly be younger, professional families with small children. They loved to speak to anyone in the elevator. Either they'd try to grab a 20-second English lesson off him as they moved upward or they'd at least smile and give him a Cantonese 'Good Morning'. The foreigners, however, were a different bunch. That 20 or 30 seconds in the elevator stretched to aeons as they stared fixedly at the door panels as if they could force them open by sheer will alone. “Hello!” he said brightly to each of them, the first time he found himself inside with one of them. “Hi,” he said the next time.  By the end of a month, he said he was simply nodding, or pulling out his cell phone and acting like an ostrich.

5) Solutions are a cultural question
One website I was reading recently suggested that because each foreigner has their own culture, they should follow their own etiquette when they go abroad. So, if you're from a don't-make-eye-contact sort of place, then by all means avoid looking at other people on the street. If you're from a small-town where you feel compelled to chat to everyone who passes by, continue this. The problem with this do-as-you-did solution is that we are no longer in our own culture. We are no longer just British, American, Italian or whatever. We are expats, and in that we have our own ‘expat culture’. As a small society embedded within the larger Chinese community, I think we need to communicate with each other and use basic good manners. If someone says hello to you, well, it's pretty poor manners not to say it back, or at least smile. At the same time, if someone seems like they don't want to be your BFF, it's probably not good manners to push yourself on them. It all sounds so simple, until you put it into practice.


Related links
Different Strokes for Different Folks: 5 Chinese Lifestyle Differences
Protect Yourself from AFS (Arrogant Foreigner Syndrome)
Expat Racism Towards Chinese

Keywords: sticky expat etiquette China dealing with expats China awkward social situations China Expat etiquette China

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64 Comments ( Add your comment )

1
Alex
comment|12252|0

The trouble with a lot of foreigners are they are bossy and rude, when they have a drink they argue and complain about everything. At teacher meetings they say some stupid things. Maybe some are okay, but the majority I have met should go back to their country.

Feb 28, 2011 14:32
2
Bill
comment|12277|0

You call it bossy and we rude we, least in group I go out with, call it standing up for ourselves and not getting a phallus of some type shoved up our ass from unreasonable bosses that are used to their employees behaving like sheep.

Mar 01, 2011 06:31
3
Alex
comment|12289|0

Bill and the other knockers of my comment! I was talking about foreigners in China. Your answer says it all!!

Mar 01, 2011 16:08
4
Tommytucker
comment|12293|0

Ah
The closet nationalism is coming out.
Stop trolling Alex. FGS

Mar 01, 2011 17:37
5
Alex
comment|12314|0

TT your reply is expected from a person who has no idea about debating, you seem to get upset about something that you don't know about. The actual story is about foreigners in China and the way they control themselves. Is that simple enough for you? What are calling me a troll for? Is it because you can hide behind the way you think and answer? I actually don't really care about your sorts because you don't live here ! I do and the people like me as well as the locals!

Mar 02, 2011 05:17
6
tonny tucker
comment|12332|0

Do you actually know what an internet troll is/does?

I have lived here for many year BTW.

Mar 02, 2011 18:54
7
Alex
comment|12354|0

Yes I do. I am not trying to go against what any one says here because you think it makes me feel good. The article is about about foreigners and how they react towards other foreigners in China. (not about Chinese Bosses or people in general) My comments are about foreign people and how they come across. I don't know you, but you should read the my comments and think about them!! I played a troll in primary school and hated it, so don't refer to me as one!!

Mar 03, 2011 04:21
8
Jim Gent
comment|12375|0

Your comment antagonises other users Alex because it is prejudiced and prescriptive. Your use of 'should' on several occasions rather gives the game away. People think you are a fool because of your distorted self-image: you think you are no troll and yet behave like a very typical one. Your comments are: disrespectful, self-righteous, inflammatory and judgmental. They show contempt for those you criticise and a total lack of understanding for their behaviour. So, despite your attempts to lose the label it will stick based on the evidence. I would encourage you to try to learn from it but since you are so patently smart-alecy and unteachable I will not waste my time. Do however, please continue digging your own grave. It's mildly entertaining.

Mar 03, 2011 15:36
9
Alex
comment|12436|0

Jim Gent, if you read my comments properly, I used the word "should" once. You have said in a generalising way that everyone thinks I am a some sort of idiot and can't be taught! Well you don't know me, I participate in a lot of Forums and Podcasts( around the World), that you wouldn't even be able to say hello in!! Your language is rough (like others). Use some restraint before you post, and don't get frustrated!

Mar 04, 2011 01:05
10
REI
comment|12541|0

Alex if you were to REread the article again...you would find that the article in fact is NOT about the way foreigners control themselves in China- it's about how we deal with OTHER FOREIGNERS in China. I do have to agree that you are a troll- and I have lived in China for 8 years, married to a Chinese man, have a daughter born in China, live in a Chinese community with NO foreigners with my Chinese in-laws...very happily I might add. What you call "bossy" and "rude" is probably decisive and filled with common sense (which I notice is severely lacking in China)- but this is the way we do things in the West. The Chinese, speaking generally, don't like to be 'first' at something and will shy away from decision making whereas Westerners will know what we want, how we want it done, and how soon it should be done.

But I do agree that there are a lot of rude PEOPLE in China- not just foreigners though. I guess it just depends on your home culture on what you consider rude. I for one think spitting on the floor in a restaurant is rude, pushing and shoving in a line, and asking a strangers salary or weight is rude- but that's just me.

Mar 05, 2011 22:25
11
Jessie
comment|12732|0

some,some

Mar 10, 2011 02:13
12
Tony
comment|12893|0

Alex!
You really need a THERAPIST!

Mar 13, 2011 23:48
13
Alex
comment|12916|0

As I read the comments people have made, I realise why I made them, and in particular the comments made about me! It goes to show that these people are rude, arrogrant and self centred fools that cause me not to want to talk, or be associated with them. As I said why don't you go back to your own country and treat your colleagues as you please. You don't know me, I made a comment, and "Boy" what a can of worms I opened!!

Mar 14, 2011 05:34
14
Dan
comment|12945|0

Then Alex, perhaps you should reflect on your original comment and consider why you got the reaction you did. Instead of just blaming everyone else.

Mar 14, 2011 18:14
15
Alex
comment|12974|0

Dan i think you (and others) should read my comments, they were made in context with the article. They had nothing to do do with the locals and I might add, they are directed to the main point of the article. As I said read the other comments as well, and you can see that most replies are saying that foreigners aren't really that nice towards other foreigners. Read it instead off going off, if you feel it is directed towards you, change your attitude!!

Mar 15, 2011 16:47
16
Putaoyaman
comment|19034|0

Perfectly explained, Rei. Have been living and travelling in China for the past 3 years, both big and small cities, and i can feel that happens more often in bigger comunities.
Even though, my experience also taught me that in time the natural selection will occur... if you always have an extra smile available, you′ll end up having a new set of friends (laowai or not), even if they don′t say hi when going up the 32nd floor. Just my 2 (and an half) cents...
Those Chinese habits (some foreigners also have them), that you refer, tend to disappear as they get to be more educated/instructed individuals.
I call them habits, cause they′re culturally related, and i am sure all our countries must have some they will also dislike.
Only cause we′re expats, doesn′t mean we all have the same culture, background or life experience... but some people (mostly Chinese) think we′re all the same, because of their lack of live contact with other cultures.

Aug 17, 2011 16:25
17
carlstar
comment|29087|0

Alex is probably right.
There are many idiots in China. Some local and some foreign. Wish they would all leave.
Chances are that you are more likely to meet the self centred, arrogant foreigners, strutting about as they think the own the place. I hate them too. Idiots with no actual skills but think they are special because at school and by their parents, they are taught how they are special and unique....
Your average, just getting on with life laowai, you are never likely to meet as they don't need to peacock about prove to themselves and the world that they are great.

Rude people. Best to just ignore. They are rude so will never change.

Jun 29, 2012 21:02
18
Deiwi
comment|29097|0

There are a lot different people in the world. "The West" as idea is outdated. Sometimes I feel like in the village between those people " from the West" here in Shanghai.

Jun 30, 2012 04:50
19
irma
comment|29368|0

ignore him hahhaha!!! Alex i think you need to take a bath hahahaha...u know what i mean???

Jul 08, 2012 12:42
20
troyce key
comment|29403|0

Thank you, Jim, you have articulated my sentiments precisely.

Jul 09, 2012 18:26
21
BMan
comment|29603|0

Interesting comment Carlstar.
You use words like 'arrogant/hate/no skills/wish they would go home.' Wow.
If and when I meet someone I don't feel comfortable with the looks of, I choose to question my own biases. Are they arrogant? Or is that just the way they hold themselves? (Example; my best friend is the nicest guy I know, but he looks scary. His body and face are just shaped that way.)

Should I hate strangers for appearing this way? Or is that as ridiculous as it sounds? I'm not even sure how a person can look arrogant, or look like they have no skills. Is it because they walk tall and look comfortable in their skin? Should we all slouch and look afraid just in case you come along? Wouldn't want to make you unhappy, now would we? The King's feelings should be foremost in all of our minds. Perhaps if you can wear a crown, I will better be able to serve you should you happen to be in the lift with me.

Should I wish that they 'go home?' Of course not. How arrogant would I be to assume I should decide where the world's people choose to live.
After a cursory analysis, it would appear that maybe you are arrogant? Yes, I think so. A hating, arrogant, shuffling type person (not a strutter) who wants everyone to go home and not play in your sandbox.
So, please, wear that crown, and display proper signage on your sandbox. In this way, I will be sure to leave you alone. Cuz for me, I will try not to judge strangers, foreign OR chinese. But you have made it clear that you're someone to avoid :)

Jul 16, 2012 00:05
22
David
comment|12253|0

Disappearing into the Chinese of course isn't possible as Chinese often react to you, especially the further you move away from the large cities.
For me I agree with the article that interacting with " ghosts" does dilute my cultural experience,However it goes without saying that you are highly visible to the Chinese and "ghosts" alike.
I'm afraid I tend to be a " look " down and straight ahead "ghost" for the reason above and the second , to avoid embarrassment on the " other side"who for similar reasons want to avoid me.
My experience however is 95% of other ghosts didn't " interact with me" which I found " interesting" and the way I preferred it.
My Chinese wife and I played a game of " spot the ghost" and for me , "avoid the ghost", and if I came close enough check out their nationality. My wife also commented on their " appearance" , whereas If he had a partner i was treading on thin ice if I ' assessed" his partner be she chinese or " european". White women with chinese men are a rarity.
Having a chinese wife is like gold dust, although it doesn't help my mandarin. We were always willing to help any" ghost" if they had a question etc, but I was surprised that only one ever did.
I was fascinated as to how other" ghosts" found their way around and rarely saw one ' lost', a situation we [ that is my wife mainly] would have been only too happy to help.
Of course I avoided group tours like the plague. Also if I saw a restaurant with "ghosts" we " moved on"
In the regional centres we hardly saw any "ghosts" so we were actively starred at. by 95% of the locals. The odd Ni Hao often disarmed the locals, brought surprise and laughter, and a ticking off from my wife, which i ignored.
A fascinating place is the Shenzhen suburb of Shekou," Ghost City". I was there for 10 days, which was far too long, my wife was "hanging out" for decent chinese food. 2 bars there were almost exclusively european, with many acting like China was in a parallel universe. It seemed like most were working in well paid jobs which was reflected in the high prices for food in mainly european restaurants. I was asked to join a club which didn't seem "open " to chinese.
I feel that there is no etiquette. You have to deal with situations as they arise. Dont be unecessarily unfriendly[ return a smile with a smile, a hello with the same] Help people if they need it, but perhaps accept that presumably" ghosts" are in China to interact with Chinese not other ghosts.
P.S. I keep getting so called 'replies " to comments I haven't written in my emails. Please check to see you have the right David and the right email address. eChinacities wont/ can't correct this situation

Feb 28, 2011 14:43
23
Robyn Noel
comment|12254|0

I sense a little paranoia here ! Im a kiwi married to a Chinese lady who lives and works in one of the unis in BJ , If anything I find alot of the foreigners I bump into just turn the other way , so ( funny ) to avoid eye contact whilst Im all loaded up to say G'Day! and give them my usual smile .
It seems the only onese who reciprocate are aussies and kiwis , but then we have always been able to be outwardly friendly to strangers no matter what their race or creed.
I love our multicultural environment here, Adelade . Aust and home in NZ
I have a sincere g'day smile for all people It may be just the thing they wanted to see from a stranger.

Feb 28, 2011 16:08
24
orientexpressguy
comment|12824|0

Of course Aussies and Kiwis are unique, if not just wierd, influenced by the bush people perhaps.Us pommies know how to behave when meeting 'ghosts' in China. Stiff upper lip, don't speak unless first introduced, never say hello, or good day. The yanks say 'have a nice day!' , but of course they don't really mean it. Expats are extremely clique orientated, extrovert in their own little groups. Its strange that they advertise to get other expatriates to join their group, but in fact only exclude them. They make no attempt to welcome newcomers at their meetings and are thus doomed to extinction.

Mar 11, 2011 19:52
25
Tony
comment|12895|0

Yes, KIWIs are really, really different.
I have a few New Zealand friends, and among my other friends and acquaintances they are the Most Sincere, Easy Going, Friendly and most importantly, HONEST & TRUE. I wish that we had more of them here.

The wordt that I have ever met are the BRITs, then the YANKs. A bunch of arrogants who feel that they are like some kinds of walkings Gods! No wonder that they get their ass always kicked!

Mar 14, 2011 00:05
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