“You’re the First Foreigner I Ever Met”

Published 2006-12-14

This past weekend, while walking Bismarck through Huweishan Park, I met my first Chinese who was meeting her first foreigner. Other expatriates had similar stories, but usually told in relation to some faraway place. This was almost literally in our backyard.

I was walking around the top of the hill that the weather station crowns. A nice (and not well-used) footpath circumnavigates this hill. Along this path I met a young woman in her late teens who asked in broken (OK, shattered) English how to get to the tower. (She didn’t know the English word for “tower” and I didn’t know its Mandarin equivalent, but I did know gao lou, “tall building”). I gave her really explicit directions but she quickly re-lost herself. She caught up to me again and I walked her to the tower in person.

Her story: she was from Quanzhou, a neighboring city and something of a civic rival to Xiamen. [Sidenote: Quanzhou was known to the West at Zaytun, a famous Arabic port where Marco Polo once resided. It was also the launching point for Zheng He’s famous “treasure fleet,” which circled the Indian Ocean, and possibly discoverd Antarctica and Australia, in the early 15th century.] My new friend’s sister was studying at Xiamen University and she was visiting. She had never been to Xiamen. We were discussing all this in an awkward Chinglish mashup when she, apropos of nothing, said: “you’re the first foreigner I’ve ever met.”

Westerners (in particular Americans) take for granted living in a polylingual multicultural world. We speak the most popular second language on Earth and give wide latitude to anyone else who tries. We learn, at an early age, how to speak to non-English speakers: a little louder, a little slower, with smaller words and simpler grammar. We expect, as a matter of daily life, to meet people who have different cultural expectations for every encounter. I find much of what the Chinese do to be bizarre, but growing up American has primed me to cope with difference so I subconsciously adjust my reactions. And this is the important part: I would do this even if I were America’s most unrepetent bigot. (In fact, I would argue that bigots correctly grasp something the PC crowd often refuse to admit: people of other cultures not only behave differently, they also think differently.) My culture has built in mechanisms for accomodating diversity.

The Chinese don’t grow up in this world, and it shows. Imagine growing up in a cultural climate in which every person you meet, or could expect to meet, wears clothes like yours, speaks a language like yours (in China, these are called dialects), celebrates your holidays and had the same kind of religious upbringing. How would this condition you to react to someone who shared none of those things?

For example: most Chinese assume I know absolutely no Mandarin, in a way that suggests they believe foreigners are genetically incapable of speaking. When I ask a Chinese person to repeat something, they’ll repeat it at exactly the same speed and pitch. The only time someone has ever asked them repeat something, it was because the listener didn’t hear correctly the first time around. They need to consciously consider the possibility that I actually don’t know what all these funny sounds mean.

Or: Chinese people stare and stare and stare at us. In fact, the less bizarre our behavior, the more interested they are in observing it. Thus, we feel the staring most accutely when shopping (“what do foreigners clean their toilets with?”) or eating (“how do foreigners use chopsticks?”). This is a little like the film Helen Keller made of her daily life for a curious public. Walking Bismarck creates a scene, but in a way that is totally understandable. (If you saw someone walking down the street in Portland with, say, a leashed jaguar, you’d probably be pretty interested.)