Living as a foreigner in China can be a confusing double-edged sword of awesome benefits and horrifying disadvantages. All it takes is a cursory glance at your Chinese friends’ lives to see that there are some gigantic differences, both professionally and personally. Today, I’ll take a closer look at some of the broad pros and cons of being a foreigner in China.
1. The foreigner card: China has many annoying obstacles to navigate in day-to-day life, but if you’re a foreigner, you have the golden ticket: the foreigner card. The foreigner card refers to the fact that you will often be excused from having to navigate pointless security checks, confusing cultural norms and frustrating workplace procedures that your less fortunate Chinese counterparts must endure.
China is a great place for foreigners to get experience in a wide variety of fields. Many schools will often explicitly demand a “native speaker" as a requirement for employment, which allows for great, if quite unfair, job opportunities for English speaking foreigners in China.
In addition to teaching jobs, oftentimes corporations also need native speakers (and not just of English) to deal with a component of international business. Other times, they just want to show they have a foreigner working there as a symbol of prestige.
Regardless of the reason, foreigners in China can easily get experience and a foot in the door of an industry they might not otherwise have been allowed near.
Many Chinese people have never dealt with foreigners before and are unsure of how to treat them. This can lead to bizarre, though not unpleasant, preferential treatment. Shop owners might move you to the front of the line, trust you to not steal anything, or even offer free or discounted goods and services in exchange for having you patronize their business.
Chinese people are also very keen to show their country off to foreigners, so you can expect to get the best bits of meat at dinner and front row seats practically everywhere you go.
One fact that is universally true, regardless of country, is the law of supply and demand. If the supply is scarce, demand goes up. And foreigners, despite their large numbers in China, are comparatively scarce when compared to the population as a whole.
Consequently, many Chinese people seek out foreigners as friends or dates simply to experience the exotic fun of interacting with someone from another culture. This means foreigners in China can pretty much have as big a social circle or lively a romantic life as they please.
1. The language problem
Many countries have diverse populations of people from all over the planet. China, historically, is not one of those countries. As a result, many Chinese people equate your race with your language. You’re white? You must only speak English. You look Indian? Namaste! You’re Asian? Let’s speak Chinese.
While this folksy racism is mostly harmless, it can be incredibly annoying when you’ve come here to study Chinese and your face doesn’t match that of a ‘Chinese speaker’. Having to break the preconceptions of every Chinese person you meet can become tedious and can often lead to language fights where both parties are refusing to speak their native language.
For those foreigners that don’t speak any Chinese, life is even harder. English proficiency away from the first tier cities is remarkably low, making life as a foreigner in China much more difficult.
2. White monkey jobs
Being hired on the basis of being a foreigner has its downsides, as it turns out. Namely, many roles are so-called ‘white monkey’ or ‘face’ jobs: they require a white person to be present and not much else.
Regardless of your job title, whether it be teacher or corporate finance engineer, your real job as a white monkey is to prove the company can attract foreigners to work there. Despite usually being lucrative and easy, these types of jobs can be soul-crushing and meaningless, not to mention blatantly unfair to foreigners who don’t happen to be white.
3. Unwanted attention
Being a foreigner in a country with low exposure to the outside world is the closest you can come to being famous for being a star on a vapid online platform, I assume. This means that no matter where you go, people are often staring at you, discussing you, approaching you to practice whichever language they think you speak and even asking to take photos with you. Often times this is harmless, but if you’re having a bad China day, these types of interactions can provoke outright rage.
4. The foreigner tax
Despite the economic boom of recent years, many people in China are still quite poor and subsist on very low salaries. Combine this fact with the popular notion that all foreigners are rich, and you have the ‘foreigner tax’.
What is the foreigner tax, you ask? Many Chinese shopkeepers and service providers view foreigners as giant walking ATM machines for the aforementioned reasons. They will therefore often try to hike up their prices, sometimes to astounding markups of 500% or more, just because you’re not Chinese.
However, as the cost of living is very low in most Chinese cities and the salaries paid to many foreigners are several times that of the average local worker, it’s up to your individual discretion how much you bargain or pay. Either way, it’s infuriating to be charged more solely on the basis of your face.
The above-listed advantages and disadvantages faced by foreigners in China proves two things: every rose has its thorn and every cloud has its silver lining. Now to figure out how to put a silver lining on a rose…
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Keywords: Foreigner in China
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