always a 老外?

September 29, 2009, 04:36 PM posted in General Discussion

Does one ever get to a point in their fluency in speaking Chinese and understanding of Chinese culture, that they will not constantly be treated like an outsider?

I am mainly interested in hearing about the experience of people who are quite fluent and well-versed in the culture, and perhaps living in China.  Some particular questions:

1. Do people who know you speak Chinese still speak English to you anyway because it is weird speaking Chinese with a foreigner (even if it is a conversation where everyone else is speaking Chinese, yourself included)?

2. Is there always the 20 questions every time you meet someone new and open your mouth in Chinese?

I don't want to be too negative, so let me just say that my happiest moments speaking Chinese have been the one or two times I heard something like "wow, it's almost as if you're not really a foreigner!" or this one time I dialed the wrong phone number and the person who answered in Chinese, couldn't see my face, and just spoke to me in Chinese. 

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September 29, 2009, 04:42 PM

And, I would love to hear some insight from the other direction:

If you are a Chinese person who interacts with fluent non-Chinese speakers of Chinese, do you talk to them the same way you would anyone else?  If not, why?

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October 04, 2009, 02:07 AM

i am about ready to put my foot through this computer.

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September 29, 2009, 05:50 PM

That's really helpful information, and more reassuring than my present experience.

I am surprised about your work colleagues.  I cannot easily imagine many of mine speaking English with me even if my Chinese were better than their English.  Anyway, I am hoping I will reach that tipping point within the next year, and am curious as to what will happen when it does.

One thing I am disappointed about is "There are thirty year veterans here who are outsiders."  Those of you who have a very advanced or even native-level of fluency in Chinese, and basically live the majority of your life using the Chinese language,  do you still feel like an outsider?

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September 30, 2009, 01:56 AM

Chinese speak English to you because...

1, they want to improve their English=他们想要提高他们英语

2, your Chinese is not better than Chinese people,so they still think you are a 老外,so...=你的中文说得始终没有中国人好,所以,他们选择跟你说外语,因为他们仍然当你是个老外,

3, enthusiastic=他们比较热情,把你当作客人,以你为先。

4, Vanity=虚荣,觉得在公共场合说外语比较时髦

almost they can`t face you as a Chinese,because your foreigner face...but...wish your Chinese better...=他们不太可能把你当作中国人,因为你始终有一张外国人的面孔,只能希望。。。你的中文能越来越好

( poor English....wish you can understand)

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September 30, 2009, 02:42 AM


Good questions. I once wrote a blog post about my frustrations dealing with this very issue: laowai 4ever

Answers to your questions:

1. Yes, there will always be some people that insist on talking to you in English no matter what, even when their English is embarrassingly bad, and your Chinese is clearly very functional. It's up to you to figure out how to deal with these people. I just choose not to make friends with them, and to minimize my interactions with them.

2. Almost always. I remember one Chinese girl in particular I met, at a low point when I had almost given up on meaningful relationships with Chinese people. She asked none of the typical foreigner questions, and she was smart and fun to talk to. She just treated me like a regular person. I ended up marrying her. :)  (no joke!)

(And, just in case this gives you hope, my wife tells me that she frequently "forgets" I'm a foreigner. This is not because my Chinese is native-like. What happens is when I don't know a word, or don't know something that all Chinese people our age know, she gets annoyed, and I have to remind her I'm doing my best in a second language and adopted culture...)

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September 30, 2009, 10:22 AM


Thats whats great about learning Chinese and the Chinese culture. Its the getting there that is fun, and since you will never "be there", getting there will last a very long time.

You always hear how the Chinese love it when you speak Chinese. Yea, if all you can say is "ni hao" like a monkey at the zoo, but I dont think they want us speaking serious Chinese. Its supposed to be too hard. They are proud of that. There are exceptions of course.

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September 30, 2009, 11:22 AM

I like John's story :-).

Actually my encounters with "Chinese" are quite positive. I must say that when I am addressed as a foreigner I say: Hey, I live in Nanjing so I am Najingren! Most of the time people speak Chinese to me and vice versa and rarely start speaking English. Or I say I am Dutch and we only speak Dutch...

Last week I had a less positive experience. I was in line to return train tickets and a very rude person cut the line just when it was my turn. He pushed me aside in a very rough manner (oh how I love China!). Well I returned the favour  (I became much braver in here) and then he started started screaming about those damn foreigners etc. I felt a bit awkward since I was the onbly foreigner between thousends of people waiting for their tickets and figured it might not be the best time for an argument :-).

That week I also was in a cab and me and the driver discussed Chinese language. Out of the blue he screamed "tamade" and I told him I knew that one and mentioned a few others. Humor and foul mouthed language is universaly appreciated.

ps. the new ticket vending machines in Shanghai station are fantastic!

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September 30, 2009, 03:01 PM


lzxmshuai, I appreciate your information.  I understand what you're saying and agree with some of it.  #2 is currently true, but it won't be forever, I'm interested if that line of reasoning "your Chinese is not better than Chinese people" will still be applied to me anyway later on, regardless of my actual abilities. I suspect so.

John,  I am glad people like you have already gone through this, so I can learn from your experience.  Thank you!    I really like your story about you and your wife :)  Fortunately, there are a few exceptions in my life as well. I want to ask, 7 years later do you still agree with what you said at the end of that blog post: "And that day is simply never going to come."?

RJ, so true...  and so sad.  I really don't want to be treated like a monkey in a zoo. When I make mistakes, I don't want to be gratuitously complimented anyway. I really want Chinese people to be annoyed at me for my Chinese being bad! I want to be laughed at and made fun of, not just ignored or spoken English to!  And every time I hear "哇!!好厉害!!!" in response to some random 老外 saying "Nee how!" it almost makes me want to cry.

RJ's point brings up another question: How does everyone respond to the (rhetorical) question "你觉得中文难吗?"  I often try to give an honest, nuanced response but pretty much every single person who asks isn't looking to actually hear my personal experience and really just wants to me to 承认, "Yeah, it's too hard, especially for a foreigner like me. You Chinese are so smart, us 老外 simply cannot compare".   I don't want to reinforce their stereotypes, but being honest isn't working for me either.

I have to say one thing that is extremely silly and also sad is the (positive) stereotypes towards 犹太人.  Sometimes when people find out I am Jewish, it's as if something clicks and my being able to speak Chinese make more sense since “犹太人都很聪明", which is ridiculous.

Chanelle, I've seen crazy people like that in America too. They're an exception though, or at least it's not considered acceptable in general. I hope the same is true of the guy in the train station.  The real problem, I think, is that it's culturally acceptable to treat 老外 differently than other people.

On a lighter note, I wish I could be a Dutch 老外 like you and use that as an excuse not to speak English.   I was able to experience that kind of thing temporarily one time.  I was in Portugal two years ago.   When I went to Chinese restaurants there the only vegetarian option was something like "Salada Chinês".  All the tofu dishes had meat.  So I tried to special order in English, but the 服务员 could only speak Portuguese and Chinese.  They still treated me like a 老外, but at least they had no choice but to speak Chinese to me!


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September 30, 2009, 04:27 PM


Sorry, don't have any such China experiences of my own to share.

I do think especially for someone going to China (or another East Asian country) from North America, where all your life you've simply accepted that your own country embraces immigrants of all races from all over the world and the idea that they will of course assimilate (and whatever actual problems do exist, the fiercely defended ideal is that they of course are treated as equals) is the given,

the "always an outsider?" question is maybe more painful to deal with.
Could it be do you think that your expectations in that aspect are generally higher, because of the ideals your country is proud of and lives by?

After years of living life in and loving (multiracial, but not in the same way NY is) Paris, speaking the language and of course respecting the culture, my (caucasian) American friend still feels she will never belong there. That isn't too surprising really. She doesn't get the 20 questions. She doesn't get any gratuitous "you speak such wonderful French!" either, haha. She does get people absolutely refusing to speak French with her even though she's speaking very competent French. The issues are not the same as those you face in China obviously (nothing to do with outward appearance, and Parisians don't see Americans who live in their city as "laowai").
At the same time, in an environment like Paris you'll probably also find a significant number of people who you can be friends with, who'll just treat you like a person, much more easily.

But China esp in the largest cities will change enormously in the coming decades won't it. People will become accustomed to having contact with non-Asian foreigners. For many it will eventually cease to be so darn special. Maybe in a few years your outlook will change dramatically ...

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September 30, 2009, 06:29 PM


Our daughter has a trick to avoid speaking English - she says something like 'I am from Bratislava..'  Pick a lesser known European country and hope that the person speaking to you does not speak the language!  Pick a city rather than a country so that on the off-chance that they speak the national language you could claim you only speak the local dialect.

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September 29, 2009, 05:06 PM


People who cannot speak English will speak with you as though you speak Chinese, no 20 questions.  That is the majority of the population. Almost all daily encounters in China are of this kind.

The 'problem' (I think I know what you mean) may occur with work colleagues.  But it is quite simple really - if they speak English better than I speak Chinese we speak English. If I speak Chinese better than they speak English we speak Chinese.  

But in China I am rarely 'forced' into English (that is more a problem in my home country); some people here are reluctant to display their lack of English.

Even my students (I teach over here); most use at least some Chinese, at some stage, talking to me, some (weaker in English) use more.

I'm not at a stage of worrying about whether i will ever be anything but an outsider.  I doubt that I will ever be at that stage.  There are thirty year veterans here who are outsiders.     


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October 02, 2009, 03:07 PM

Light:  That's a great suggestion. I'll try that out, it sounds like a nice compromise, and I am certainly not in a position to claim I've mastered Chinese.

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October 02, 2009, 03:50 PM

哈哈哈!John, that blog post of yours is spot on. (Erm... that's a possibly outmoded UK expression meaning totally correct by the way.) Absolutely love Nicki's comment at the bottom of the page.

I was incredibly naive about these matters before I actually came to China. I really should have done my homework. Too damn late now!

I'm quite possibly an atypical and ornery individual, something of a maverick, but if you want to know the truth, learning Chinese is for me mostly just an intellectual exercise I indulge in just to keep myself sane living in this country. It has the added benefit that I can (mostly) avoid being cheated by taxi drivers and can now cope in (most) of life's *essential situations* with gradually decreasing rudeness and/or hilarity from the natives.

In terms of avoiding the '20 questions', in terms of being able to walk down the street or ride a bus without being stared at, in terms of getting to the door of my home without hearing 外国人 come out of the mouth of some school kid or old lady, in terms of 'real' communication with the Chinese, I actually gave up some time ago, (and the more Chinese I learn, the less inclined I am to change my mind.)

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October 03, 2009, 01:57 PM


I did enjoy the blog laowai 4ever, good one.  I've been thinking about zhenlijiang's comments about the problem diminishing with greater contact with the West.  As I said in my original post, my most uncomfortable moments are with people who have had plenty of contact with English speakers, so I am not so sure.  Some of these conversations result in a kind of battle over which language we are going to speak.  I am happiest on my daily visits to the market where no one tries to speak English to me; no one seems to care where i come from or how long I have been learning chinese .. 

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October 03, 2009, 05:16 PM

The phenomenon under discussion is to some degree human nature and to some degree Chinese in nature. To whatever degree it is due to naivete', that part will diminish with contact, even though it may take the handing off to a new generation to really shift. In all this however we should not miss the fact that this is a rather minor form of "unwelcome" behaivior. Compared to the treatment of minorities elsewhere in place and time, I would say we are treated pretty well in China.

@Zhen - the ideal in America may be to accept all, but the truth is on the street you will experience a wide spectrum of behaivior and ideals when it comes to foreigners. Dont assume its some sort of utopia here, it is not. Our history if full of the strife immigrants have expeienced as they tried to assimilate. The Chinese included.

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October 04, 2009, 01:17 AM

RJ--that's what I meant!

I said
(and whatever actual problems do exist, the fiercely defended ideal is that they of course are treated as equals) is the given,

I know what it's like in the US.

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October 04, 2009, 01:43 AM


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October 04, 2009, 01:52 AM

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October 04, 2009, 02:07 AM

you caught me Baba. With all the connection problems I forgot I was on her computer :-)

youre too quick for me. I still cant get on mine so


you are right. I guess I read your post too quickly. I only wish we did follow the ideal here.

RJ (sock puppet version)

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September 30, 2009, 08:48 PM

Yeh.. I only spent a month in China but I did find that when people knew I was Australian, it was somehow so much better than being from any other non-Asian country and our relationships were better for it. Funnily enough, I didn't encounter many situations where I was cornered into speaking English.. I found the opposite infact because my Chinese is so poor, I always found it nearly impossible to find someone with good enough English skills to be able to communicate with.

Answering the "is Chinese hard?" question is much like haggling.. you need to do it with a cheeky smile in such a way as you are not offending them but also implying that you may also be joking, without giving too much away. :) I always answer pretty much the same way though, "Learning anything is easy but mastering it is hard." or something to that effect.. it generally goes down pretty well with the people I know.