Jenny descending an escalator into Carrefour department store in Xiamen


Published 2006-12-19

Lately it seems foreigners are everywhere in Xiamen. We’ve only been here four (five?) months; how is it possible we missed all these foreigners already?

Maybe we’re victims of what I call the “Audi Effect.” Anyone who’s ever owned an unusual but not rare car (like an Audi) knows what this is like. When you buy your Audi, you think you’re the only person in the world (or your town, anyways) who has one. But now that you’ve become attenuated to seeing Audis, you notice, hey, there are actually a lot of Audis out there. The longer you drive your Audi, the more pronounced the effect. So the number of foreigners isn’t changing, we’re just noticing them more.

Or maybe it’s a local effect. As we settle into a routine, we’re spending more time in the same places. So we’re getting to know the neighborhood around our apartment, Huweishan Park, the big grocery stores like Carrefour and Metro, and Zhongshan Road. (Not coincidentally, these are the places foreigners tend to live, recreate and shop.) As these places become more familiar, they become less startling, and small differences (like a foreigner we’ve never seen before) stand out more.

Or maybe there really are more foreigners for some reason. Maybe Xiamen is becoming Known and now the place will fill up, like Shanghai or Hong Kong, with laowai looking to make a killing on The Next Big Thing.

The funny thing about foreigners is that they are really unfriendly. If you make eye contact with a Chinese person and say nihao they’re likely to nihao right back. Locals are not shy, and unafraid of eye contact. (Frankly, they stare.) But you just can’t engage a strange laowai, even in a comparatively friendly setting like a bar or coffee shop. If you don’t know them already, they won’t say hello or even look at you. You’d think, foreigners being the (still) rare animals we are, that every time we see one we haven’t met, that we’d be psyched: You look like me! And speak my language! I bet you miss hamburgers and good beer too! This never happens.

I think foreigners in a kind of backwater like Xiamen are seeking isolation from other people like themselves. I call this the “Laowai Bubble.” It’s sort of like when you go for a hike on Mt. Hood, and you hike for hours and don’t see any other can imagine you’re the only person on the trail. So when you do see another hiker, that kind of pops the bubble. Oh, there are other people. I’m not so special after all. Laowai in Xiamen form similar bubbles around themselves. We like to imagine that because we’ve “discovered” this pretty little corner of China, where very few people speak English, and that we’ve managed to scratch out a little space for survival in this alien environment, that somehow we’re special. After all, no one we know “back home” could do this, right? So running into another laowai is just a rude reminder that, hey, you're not so special after all.