Devils In The Middle Kingdom
|By Ben Hill
Hello! Laowai, Hello!" - I hear it everywhere I go; there's no escape.
has the literal translation of 'old outsider', and is probably the
most polite word in Mandarin Chinese for a foreigner, carrying an implication
of respect. 'Waiguoren' - 'out-land person' - is another
word I hear, sometimes whispered in surprise or disbelief, but more often
issued as a sort of challenge to do something interesting orhengduentertaining.
the most mundane of tasks performed by a waiguoren inevitably falls into
one of these categories, and encountering a foreigner in a world that is
overwhelmingly Chinese is entertainment in itself, the challenger is rarely
|A less polite
term for a non-Chinese person is 'Gweizi' - foreign ghost or foreign
devil - very rarely spat out as an insult, although any racism encountered
in China is usually much more subtle than this. In the Cantonese language
of China's south-east I am 'Gweilu' - a white ghost. After spending
the majority of the last five millennia of history at the hub of its own
self-contained universe, the origin of China's attitude to the outside
world isn't difficult to understand. The Middle Kingdom - the literal rendering
of the Mandarin for 'China' - carries with it the suggestion of
centrality; another expression for the Chinese empire, 'Tianxia'
or 'all under heaven', gives the distinct impression that nothing
else matters, not least the wild savages inhabiting the reaches beyond
the Great Wall.
this is changing, and quickly. The image of the foreigner as barbarian,
Bad Element, or otherwise malign and corrupting influence, has all but
died out. To the great majority of Chinese, though, an out-land person
is still an unknown quantity. Indeed, despite China's recent policies of
'opening-up', many Chinese have yet to experience a laowai at close
quarters, let alone speak to one, and in most cases 'Hello!' - always
shouted, never spoken - is the only fragment of English they know.
to be gained by being annoyed by all this attention, but hearing it for
the tenth time in an hour can be wearing on even the most hardened sinophile.
can also function as verbal shorthand for "Ah, I see you are an out-land
person; I would like to practice my English with you, do you mind?"
All Chinese university students are required to study English alongside
their chosen subject, and although reading and writing proficiency is often
high among the young, educated generation, their opportunities to
practice conversation are limited. Sadly, though, within a few halting
sentences the initial enthusiasm to learn is often overcome by an innate
shyness of dealing with foreigners, and the impromptu lesson quickly breaks
down into uncomfortable laughter - that particularly Chinese laughter which
carries no humour but instead serves to mask awkwardness or embarrassment.
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|It must be
added, though, that this is not always the case. Foreigners are also considered
fair game for anything from brief street-corner entertainment (where
any reply brings nothing but an uproar of laughter and yet more 'Hello!'s)
to free English classes conducted in the public squares, shopping malls
and teahouses where young, eager Chinese congregate - and it is always
English, the very notion that a laowai might speak any other language would
only be met with bewilderment. China is even more intent on adopting English
as lingua franca than ever before following her accession to the WTO in
2001, and native speakers are in great demand as teachers, but the trouble
is that desire for linguistic mastery doesn't always go hand in hand with
willingness to jump through the necessary hoops to achieve it.
not like other Foreign Teachers, Mr Ben. You don't want to play games."
Wednesday, and fourteen students are absent from my lesson. Almost
half the class. This is by no means a common occurrence - there's no place
for truantism in China's rigidly disciplined school system - yet they seem
to think they can get away with it during my lessons because to them I'm
simply not a teacher. I'm a Foreign Teacher, an entirely different species,
balanced precariously between valuable educational resource and
entertainment service. An American colleague has described our status as
that of performing monkeys, a situation which unfortunately isn't helped
by the flooding of the circuit in recent years with young, unqualified
teachers who see a job in China as a route to an expenses-paid holiday
in return for sixteen periods of hangman each week.
see nothing wrong with that in itself - it's certainly great experience
for anyone considering a teaching career,
and when it comes to English, China needs all the help she can get - it
leaves in the minds of my students, and even my Chinese colleagues, a confusing
and conflicting impression of the purpose of the Foreign Teacher.
It can be difficult
to adapt, at first, to the fact that a foreign face in China stands out
like the largest sore thumb imaginable.
be no disappearing into the crowd. Everything I do is a constant source
of fascination and amusement for the people of Chengdu, my adoptive home
city, and without needing to try, I become a tourist attraction in my own
right. Then there's the staring.
at me; I at them; they at each other. There is rarely, if ever, any
malice in it, rather curiosity, and the Chinese people are, as a rule,
very open in expressing their curiosity. Sometimes merely posting a letter
or buying vegetables can draw a crowd. But it's not just me. It would seem
that everyone in China stares at everyone else, and it's this lack of discrimination
that - after the initial culture shock - makes it all the easier to accept
and ignore. There's no taboo about staring here, so when someone stares
at me I can stare right back, and as I'm often just as interested in the
starer as they are in me, I'm finding it can work both ways.
attitude to Foreigners (always spoken with a capital F) can be in
turn wonderfully hospitable, bafflingly contradictory, or even downright
insulting. I swing between being treated like a movie star and being treated
like a leper on a regular basis. One writer has likened the treatment of
'Foreign Guests' by Chinese officialdom to that accorded to a rare
but slightly unpredictable wild animal: we must be looked after and protected
at all costs, but at the same time carefully watched else we should do
something either harmful to ourselves or embarrassing for our keepers.
Thus life in China, although enjoyable and fascinating beyond measure,
can also be very frustrating. Separate laws and regulations apply to Foreign
Guests - I cannot, for example, even receive a parcel without the permission
of my 'work unit', nor can I stay at certain hotels - these are
'Chinese Only'. Even where I am allowed to stay, I am often required
to pay twice as much, or more, as the locals for the privilege - despite
only earning a local salary - and although the widespread dual-pricing
policy of the last few decades is being - officially speaking at least
- eradicated, many traces remain.
If these 'rules'
were applied evenly, then they would be a little easier to swallow, but
for foreign nationals of Chinese descent and appearance, they are conveniently
forgotten. This amounts to little more than state-sanctioned racism,
but the Chinese don't see it like that - and would be aghast if it were
suggested. These are the rules, they say, and that is all there is to it.
There is even a stock refrain: 'guiding shi guiding' - rules are
rules. It can't be racist, because there is No Racism in China; it is a
Foreign Problem. But then so is anything else that the government considers
unhealthy - prostitution, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, homosexuality,
mental illness - for the Chinese, these are all Foreign Problems.
that all this may have made life as a Foreign Devil in the Middle Kingdom
sound like an incredibly fruitless uphill struggle, I'll say this:
as annoying as the constant 'Hello!'s can be, and as frustrating as the
petty officialdom gets, the rewards and insights of this incredible country
- one quarter of civilisation - more than compensate. Perhaps it is because
of, rather than despite, the challenge of being accepted here that my time
in this country so far has been more rewarding than - and so different
to - that which I have spent in any other. It takes a long time and a lot
of effort to break in and be accepted - even in the smallest of ways -
as an individual, rather than just another laowai. After a year, I haven't
yet managed it, and many Foreign Devils give up after a matter of months.
Some don't even try, but for me that's just going to make it a whole lot
more worthwhile when I get there.
left the drizzle and familiarity of the north of England in 2002 to work
with the British Council as a teacher of English in Chengdu, south-west
China. He's going to stay there until he works out what to do next, and
in the meantime uses writing and photography to document his experiences.
If you would like to contact Ben Click
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