Meeting other laowais

November 03, 2009, 06:19 PM posted in General Discussion

So I'm a bit curious. This is for you non-asian looking people living in China. When you line up at the supermarket or walk down the street or get on a bus and you see another obviously non-Chinese person, what do you do? Is there a knowing glance exchanged? Do you strike up a conversation (the same 20 questions you're always put through by the Chinese?) and if so, in English or Chinese? Or what? Is there a laowai "kinship" or do you just treat them like Chinese? I expect you see other foreigners pretty much every day in Shanghai, but maybe not so often in other parts of the country.

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November 03, 2009, 06:42 PM

I get ignored by most of the foreigners when I see them on the street.  There are also plenty of foreigners in my building, and I think i've only said hello to 2 of them once. One is a Chinese American from New York, and the other one was a Canadian who has since left China to return to Canada.  Interestingly enough, some of the Chinese actually are friendlier to me that many of the foreigners, for whatever reason. But its also not like the other foreigners are excluding me, and then talking up every non-Chinese person they see.  It looks like most of us foreigners ignore each other, at least up here in Beijing.  There are circumstances where this isn't the case, but it's overwhelmingly true from my experience.

I will also say that this is the case in Beijing. When we lived in Lanzhou, the number of foreigners I saw monthly could be counted on one hand.  I still got ignored, but once I did come up to a couple that flew into China from Tennessee, and asked where they were from. that's when I found out that they were from Tennessee in the US, and they came to China to adopt.   

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November 03, 2009, 06:57 PM

Hi Simon,

Do you know about the "Marco Polo Syndrome" ?

See John's blog for more information :

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November 03, 2009, 08:22 PM

Is there a knowing glance exchanged?

..hehe,that's really funny.I could imagine a comedy skit on that.Talking of knowing glances [but of a different kind] reminds me of the second paragraph on John's blog Laowai4ever:

(the same 20 questions you're always put through by the Chinese?) that my friend is an excellent question.I'm interested in opinions on that.

Great link kimiik.I liked John's spirit:

So now I make an effort to at least smile at other foreigners. Usually they ignore me or frown back, but at least I’m not one of them.

The other comment I found interesting in that thread was a quote of a guy Ryan saying:

but I do find myself staring at foreigners as much, sometimes more, than the Chinese). I've oft heard 老外 complain about being stared at,so that was interesting.

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November 04, 2009, 12:46 AM

Marco Polo Syndrome! That nails it.

There's an art to ignoring people isn't there? Behaving as though you are unaware of their existence, even if you'd have to be physically or mentally handicapped not to be? Even though doing so is actually rather absurd and pathetic? And as a 老外 in China, one learns to perfect this art, unless you enjoy being snubbed and/or made to feel like some kind of foolish creep.

Personally I gave up trying to acknowledge other foreigners in China some time ago, (the ones I don't know personally I mean.) Sometimes though, old habits of basic human friendliness and/or courtesy break through. Last week for example I noticed a 老外 guy in Walmart looking a bit lost and confused.
"Need any help?" I asked with a smile.
He gave me the look you might give to an annoying simpleton, or someone begging for change in the street.
"I'm fine," he responded with an amused, indulgent shake of the head, and went back to taking packets of breakfast cereal in and out of his shopping cart.
For half a second I considered following up with a cheery 'Been here long?' or 'Where do you work?', but it was only half a second, and then I briskly walked on.

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November 04, 2009, 01:48 AM

I suppose this long story is to illustrate that I might have been ignoring these fellow Americans, but that didn't mean that I or they have Marco Polo Syndrome.  I think it would have been interesting to know what people do in their own neighborhoods/countries before they come to the foreign one. simonpettersson, I don't know if you meet and greet every Swede you meet, or bababardwan, if you greet every Australian you meet, but I certainly didn't greet every American I met when I was in the US, so i'm not sure why I would start doing it outside of the US.  Not in France, not in the UK or anywhere else.  I didn't develop the habit in the US of greeting people, so why should I develop the habit in China? Should I?

 Plus, i'm not clear on why ignoring fellow foreigners, even ones from your own country, is evidence of marco polo syndrome.  The Marco Polo Syndrome I heard a little about was talking about art culture. 


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November 04, 2009, 02:03 AM


I know exactly what you mean, I never know whether to say hi or not - I always kind give a sort of awkward grin :S ! However, there have been many times when other foreigners have said 'morning' or 'hey' and it was actually really nice to hear! I think it's always good to acknowledge others, particularly those you have things in common, like fellow laowais in China!

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November 04, 2009, 03:04 AM

That might be because they think "I came all the way to another country, why should I have to talk to my fellow guys?", hehe.

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November 04, 2009, 04:26 AM

Pretzellogic, I do not greet every Swede I meet in Sweden, no. But if I'm abroad and I hear someone speak Swedish, I'm quite likely to say "Hey, someone from back home!" and greet them, asking them where in Sweden they're from. Hell, if I'm in Stockholm and hear someone mention they're from Karlskoga (my home town) or speak in a heavy dialect from there, I'm quite likely to say "Hey, someone from back home!".

I sort of assumed that if you're in China and don't see a lot of other westerners, the "back home" area would expand even further (from my home town to my home country to my home continent). But that's if you don't see many of them, I guess.

The MPS sounds ... disturbing and unfun.

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November 04, 2009, 05:58 AM

I do see plenty of foreigners, and in fact, I saw a few people from Boston, LA, Puerto Rico, Chicago and other places around.  But they are sometimes having a conversation amongst the three or two or 10 of them, and I wanted to join in, but I thought it would have been intruding.

I think it will depend on the kind of person you are.  If a person is excited about being outside their home country for the first time, then I guess they would ask about backgrounds. 

I definitely ask about backgrounds when i'm at my daughter's preschool. This past weekend, her preschool had a Halloween party, and there was another father New Zealand asking about what the heck was this halloween party thing.  I did think it was interesting that this American custom is making its way into China, and now this poor New Zealand family has to deal with it, along with the Australian, Japanese and others that never heard of Halloween.

y'know, it occurs to me that given the father/father conversation I had with this guy from New Zealand, that's not enough to just be a "foreigner".  You really need something "unique" to start a conversation.  I'm 100% sure that if you see a guy in your Wing Chun school that you don't know, but then one day you see him on the street outside of class, you might acknowledge him the same way i'd acknowledge this New Zealander.