The Hidden Advantages of Being the Only Foreigner in a Chinese Office

The Hidden Advantages of Being the Only Foreigner in a Chinese Office
Sep 06, 2018 By Niklas Westerlund ,

We’ve recently written about how to be less negative when living in China. Lest we forget we’re here for a reason, whatever reason that might be, let’s again focus on the positives of expat life in China. So, for those of us who are lucky enough to be working in China (or planning to), let’s have a look at the hidden advantages of being the only foreigner in a Chinese office.


You’re automatically interesting by the virtue of not being Chinese

Silly and factually questionable as it may sound (being Chinese or not is not exactly a virtue), your un-Chinese-ness will make you interesting in the Chinese workplace. At least for a while.

Anything you say or do will be deemed as exotic, and any mistake you make, socially or otherwise, can be excused by you being a foreigner. You’re expected to make mistakes. Patronizing? Only if you’re easily offended. It’s better to use it to your advantage instead.

A word of caution though. Don’t forget that while you may get an unreasonable amount of attention and a social “get out of jail free card”, you’ll eventually come to realise that ‘the office foreigner’ is also all you’ll ever be. If you’re only in China for a couple of years then that’s probably not going to bother you. However, if you’re here for the long run, it might start to wear you out farther down the road.

You’re probably excused from office-gossip

Depending on your Chinese proficiency, the tea-kettle gossip (good luck finding a coffee machine) is neither in your interest, nor about you (probably). If your Chinese proficiency is pretty weak, you’ll have neither the means to understand, nor to reply to, any gossip.

Add your previously mentioned card into that mix and you’re pretty much immune to work gossip. This means you can focus on being productive instead and show your leader that you’re above petty and meaningless office politics.

You’ll get great at doodling

You’re in a meeting with 12 Chinese co-workers. Your Chinese boss is droning on about issues well above your HSK-level. Your co-workers are listening intently. You’re just hoping you get a quick summary in English at the end of it all.

In the meantime, you aim to at least appear productive, which is why you shrewdly brought a notebook and a pen to the meeting. Not for taking notes, but for doodling. It’s fun, try it! If you feel you need to be even more productive, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice your Chinese calligraphy.

Be careful though, as you might find yourself in an embarrassing situation if you completely misjudge the atmosphere in the room. In the rare event of a mass lay-off , you might find that the news is delivered during a meeting. If the quiet lady next to you who usually naps through the afternoon starts crying, you can safely assume that the meeting is going to end badly for at least a few others as well. In a worst-case scenario, you’ll be laid-off without even knowing it until after the meeting. It’s rare, but it can happen. It happened to me.

Free Chinese lessons, voluntary and otherwise

Just as you might be regarded as the go-to guy or gal in the office for practicing English, this also works the other way around. Regardless of if you’re a total beginner, HSK4’ish or an HSK6 pro, being the only foreigner in a Chinese office will absolutely, positively, improve your Chinese proficiency, even more so if your co-workers have modest-to-no English proficiency.

Of course, you’ll have to take initiative to grab those opportunities, or else you might find yourself being more isolated than you’d feel comfortable with. Regardless of which country you’re in, this is never fun.

But don’t be afraid, any attempt at communicating in Chinese on any level will usually be met with excitement and encouragement from your co-workers. Reciprocating this when or if your co-workers attempt to do the same in English will lead to an even better atmosphere in the office. You’ve absolutely nothing to lose!

Reality check

In summation, it could be said that if you’re an interesting, social and generally pleasant person to be around back home, you’ll still be that person in China. If you’re an obnoxious and generally weird person back home, you’ll still be that person in China after the initial excitement has subsided about there being an actual, live foreigner in the office. Regardless of where you come from, always strive to be the best version of yourself.

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Keywords: foreigner in a Chinese office


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I think the best place to learn Chinese is when you are physically in China, in an environment where you either force to speak and learn to survive.

Sep 21, 2020 10:15 Report Abuse



these articles plum new depths. not content with hardly anyone reading them anymore, they are now just clutching at straws.

Sep 11, 2018 13:54 Report Abuse



Great advice. Let me sum it up. You're interesting- you're a zoo exhibit. You're excused from office gossip- no one talks to you. You'll get great at doodling- no one talks to you and when they do you don't understand. Free Chinese lessons- you need to learn Chinese if you want people to talk to you, they probably still won't talk to you.

Sep 08, 2018 03:10 Report Abuse



I could call you a bitter cynic. But that's a pretty accurate summary - if you're unlucky.

Sep 10, 2018 17:22 Report Abuse



Actually a typical day, nothing to add.

Sep 22, 2018 08:12 Report Abuse