Getting to Grips with Being a Foreigner
China has been on the up and coming world stage now for a couple of decades and has experienced huge economic and domestic growth. Cities have sprung up overnight and the modernity of these have been overhauled quickly. Even so, I really did not expect the situation I now find myself in. Now, you could possibly take this down as naivety but I really didn’t expect to find myself in a position where I was one of maybe fifty foreigners in the city of Fuzhou. I did my research in to what the city would be like; the population, the infrastructure, demographics, geography, climate etc, but I didn’t look in to how diverse or “Westernised” it would be. I knew from the York School brochure that I would be working alongside many other native English speakers and didn’t really think beyond this.
A city of 7 million people must have a few ex-patriots here and there, right? Nope! Despite the size of this city, and in Chinese terms it’s a relatively small city, there are still only a handful of westerners. Taking the flight from Heathrow to Shanghai I was in regular contact with other Western passengers and I would estimate there were only about 15 percent of us. Going through security and customs heading towards domestic flights however and this percentage dropped to barely 0.01%. The contrast was fascinating. Boarding the flight from Shanghai to Fuzhou from the rear of the aeroplane confirmed I was the only blond haired person in sight.
The Advantages and Disadvantages
Most days it can be fairly harmless glances of people wanting to see something up close that they have only seen previously on massive billboards advertising Calvin Klein or Gucci. People look closely at your eyes more often than not as this seems to be one of the strangest differences for them to comprehend. Green, blue or grey eyes are completely alien to them, so getting as near as possible for them to yourself is all they want to do. This can be bearable but perhaps when you are exhausted from work or you have just finished playing football and feel as lousy as you look this attention isn’t always welcome, but you get used to it in no time. Other times it can be a bit more distracting or obvious, especially when you hear the term “lǎo wài” on a packed bus and you know someone is talking about you. It could be perfectly innocent conversation but being the topic of debate on a regular basis can sometimes leave you wishing to blend in a little more.
It is not always like this though and if you are out in a busy bar or opening a bank account it can be extremely advantageous. The very few people in Fuzhou that can speak English will come up to you regularly to ask you questions or to practise their language skills which can lead in to some very eventful evenings or bizarre conversations. And more often than not if you are out and about they will also offer to buy you food or drinks. When it came to opening my bank account with China Construction Bank, it also meant that I was jumped ahead in the line by several numbers just because I represented foreign investment. I doubt they would have pushed me to the front of the queue however if they knew the real state of my UK bank balance.
The Secrecy of Being Obvious
Another practice of the local population is to take your photo. This maybe in the form of covert Iphones being slowly turned in to your direction or to the less subtle habitants who will blatantly just snap away in your direction. I have found that generally it is a pretty innocent consequence of being something different to look upon. Recently when Mike and I went to Gushan mountain we were accosted several times by families who wanted to have their son or daughter photographed with us.
Being in a tourist destination such as GuShan meant that we encountered several people who might only go to the city once or twice a year, so the bonus of seeing a Lǎo Wài is one not to be missed! All in all it is something to be expected and not really something you should feel awkward or angry about. If you respectfully said no to your picture being taken you would be left alone and in my personal opinion it doesn’t really bother me. I just find it funny and ask to take a picture of them in return. As you can see the family seem much happier about this than the son who was forced to have his picture taken.