This morning I stumbled upon an interesting article on lostlaowai. The website reported on something that happened in Chengdu: a Westerner (in Chinese often called 老外, pinyin: lǎowài) shouted furiously at a bus driver who apparently had not stopped to let him get in. The foreigner had to run after the bus and in the process he got his trousers dirty. When the driver opened the door, the guy stepped in and began to heap on him a flow of angry words in a mix of Chinese, English and another language.
Had he expected that, in the era of smartphones, the fit of anger of a Westerner in China would not to go viral within a few hours? If he did expect such a thing, he was wrong. In fact, a passenger shot a video of the screaming laowai and posted it online. The mad laowai became yet another internet sensation, yet another example of a ‘crazy foreigner’.
The expatriate community criticized him, though not unanimously, for damaging with his behaviour the reputation of Westerners in China. I think that this incident, which is one of similar episodes that have been reported online in recent years, reveals the extent of the love-hatred relationship between Westerners and Chinese.
The Laowai and the Local Environment
Let me say that although I think that the reaction of the Western guy in the video was way too extreme, a part of me does understand him. I explained in previous posts that Chinese people tend to have an attitude towards strangers that I would sum up in the sentence: “This is none of my business“. People drive like crazy? “None of my business“. Your neighbour who lives on the top floor built an illegal house on the rooftop that is supposed to be common space? “None of my business“. Someone talks so loud in a cafe’ that you can barely hear your own voice? “None of my business.” A shop owner puts tables, chairs and a food stand in the middle of the pavement and people can barely walk? Again, “none of my business.”
I have written a post about cyclists’ misconduct in Taipei. They ride their bikes on the pavement among pedestrians, regardless of the great danger. Bikes come so close to you that accidents are a matter of a few centimeters. Another example are people standing right in front of the door of underground trains while there is a lot of space left. This happens quite a lot of times. I can imagine what would happen in Germany: people would simply criticize the cyclists, they would stop them and tell them to be careful. And if someone blocked a door, people would tell him or her.
If I were in Berlin, and I took the underground, and I happened to stand in front of the exit door, barring the way to the passengers who want to get off, they would show to me that I am not considerate. Once the following scene happened to me. I was wearing a backpack and I was blocking part of the exit door. An old woman looked at me and said: “Young man, do you really have to stand in front of the door with this backpack? Take it off!” “Sorry,” I said smiling, but my smile immediately froze into a grimace when I saw the hard, uncompromising look in her eyes. “Yeah, sorry,” she said with a sneer. Then I got angry myself and turned away.
Well, this doesn’t happen every day, of course, and not everyone is like that woman. But in Germany, in Italy and – I dare say – in the whole of Europe, it is not uncommon for strangers to criticize each other. Another example (the last I shall give, because I think I’ve already made myself clear) is what happened to me in Italy last January.
Because of a strike (yet another one, yes!) many trains of Rome’s underground were delayed. I waited for a train for about twenty minutes, and while I was standing on the platform, a huge crowd gathered, and all of us were pissed off because we had to wait twenty minutes instead of the usual five or six. When the train finally arrived, it was already full. Everyone tried to get into a carriage, squeezing themselves between the other passengers. You could feel that we were all totally annoyed by this situation, and angry at the public transport, the strikers, the politicians, the economy and I don’t know how many other things that go wrong.
I was one of the first in the line, so I managed to sneak inside and move to the centre of the carriage. Then suddenly the general anger got out of control. A woman who had pushed herself inside had bumped into another woman, who turned towards her and said: “Don’t you see that I am standing here? Do you think I am made of thin air and if you touch me I’ll disappear? There is just no place for you in the carriage!“
A battle of words ensued, which none of them won, I believe. They just wanted to vent their anger, and I guess they did it in such a way.
I am not suggesting that all Europeans quarrel with each other all the time. My point is that this sort of things do happen. Many people apparently think that being rude to strangers is acceptable.
Now, the Chinese attitude is to avoid confrontation with strangers at all costs, unless it is absolutely necessary. They want to avoid trouble, but they also tend to keep a huge distance from strangers. That is way people seldom talk or smile to each other, help each other open a door etc. Don’t get me wrong, people do help one another in certain situations; what they will absolutely avoid is confrontational interaction with strangers. Unless it is a serious situation, they will just mind their own business and look away if something happens.
For instance, one day I went to the Zoo in Taipei, I and my friends lined up, and behind us there was a middle-aged man who kept on touching us inadvertently with his foot or his bag or his arm, because he apparently was very impatient and wanted to go as far as possible in the line. If I had been alone, or if I had been in Europe and the man had been European, I would have just said something because I think he shouldn’t behave like that. But my Taiwanese friends, though they found it annoying, too, did not tell him anything: first of all, because he was a stranger, and second, because he was older.
In general, people here don’t want to get into trouble by starting a fight with someone they don’t know, so they’ll let it be. This has its good sides; for example, most people will leave you alone. However, there is a difference between different parts of the Chinese-speaking world. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, this attitude also means that you will be very safe and no one will harm you. In certain parts of mainland China, probably because of the poverty, that might not be the case.
Although Chinese people tend to be cautious when dealing with strangers, they can also be direct, aggressive and even rude in other situations, most especially towards the people they know and towards people hierarchically inferior to them. Parents can be very harsh to their children; girlfriends to boyfriends and vice versa; friends to friends; bosses to employees etc. In Europe, I mostly had fight with strangers, but in Taiwan I had trouble with the people I was close to. For them, it is incomprehensible that someone might get angry at a stranger, but if it happens in other circumstances it is acceptable; for us, if a friend shouts at us because we have come late, or if they blame us because we have no girlfriend or boyfriend, we might found that very tasteless (bear in mind I’m oversimplifying).
As a consequence of this, many foreigners like me are sometimes frustrated because we see things that we don’t like and we wish to vent our anger. For example, one day I was on a bus. The driver suddenly braked and a woman almost fell down. I think that it would have been justifiable to remind the driver that the safety of the passengers comes first; but no one said anything. Another, pettier example is what happened to me last week in the MRT. A middle-aged woman was sitting right beside me. She kept on swaying her foot back and forth. Many Taiwanese do such things as a sort of exercise to improve blood circulation (at least that’s what I’ve heard). I looked at her several times to show her that she was too close to me and her foot might hit me. But she didn’t get it. And at last, her foot struck my leg. She smiled and said sorry. But I thought: “You could have been careful and avoided it; it was obvious that this might happen.” Honestly, I have adapted myself to the local habit of letting things go. But there are moments when I get very impatient, for example when people talk on the phone in the library (or even listen to music and sing… sigh!), when cyclists come too close to me etc.
I wonder why that foreigner in Chengdu got so angry; was it because he is a crazy guy, or had he accumulated a lot of frustration, or did he just want to show his anger to the bus driver so that he might think twice the next time before ignoring a passenger waiting at a bus stop?
Love and Hatred
I have heard a lot of things about foreigners here in Taiwan, and I have come to realize how deep misunderstandings between the two cultures are, and how much fascination and repulsion, curiosity and indifference, goodwill and rejection co-exist and shape the imagination of both sides. At the beginning, people said to me that foreigners were welcomed in Taiwan, which is certainly true to a great extent. But somehow, there is also a lot of diffidence and resentment.
The first time I became aware of this phenomenon was in Germany. I met a Chinese student who one day complained that his university in China had built a cafeteria that provided Western food for the foreign students. He thought that his country was too nice to foreigners, and that they took advantage of it. After all, why can’t foreigners eat Chinese food and live like locals?
In Taiwan, too, I heard a few times Taiwanese saying: “We are too nice to foreigners“. I believe that here lie a lot of misunderstandings. First of all, what Chinese perceive as nice may not be perceived as nice by foreigners. For instance, it is true that foreigners at some Chinese universities have some privileges; but it is also true that the fees for foreigners are higher. On the other hand, German universities are not always nice to foreign students, but they treat them like German students. I studied in Berlin, and all of us, no matter if German, European or non-European, paid no fees at all. So, would the German university be nicer if it gave foreigners special food and the staff smiled at them and treated them well, but made them pay fees? I guess it depends on the perspective. Perhaps Westerners would willingly accept to live like locals, if they were also allowed to pay like locals.
Similarly, some Taiwanese I met when I came here were nice to me. But mostly, they were very nice at the beginning, especially the first time, and they said they would help me if I needed something etc. But actually, very few of them ever helped me or had any time. Which is okay, I don’t mind. But I found the difference between how they present themselves as helpful and nice, and the actual fact they neither have the time nor the patience to actually help, quite striking. I’m not implying that Europeans are nicer. But hopefully Europeans don’t say they are too nice to foreigners, because that would be one of the biggest lies in history.
Basically, Taiwanese often times see Westerners as too arrogant, unreliable, pleasure-seeking and rude. At the same time, Westerners enjoy a positive image: cool, interesting, open-minded and a bunch of other things. These different perceptions circulate in the society simultaneously, can be interchangeable, can even be expressed by the same person.
The image of the arrogant foreign teacher that comes to Taiwan to enjoy girls and easy money and who doesn’t care about the local culture, or the image of the arrogant foreign worker who disregards even the basic rules of decency, exist in the collective perception though they are by no means shared by a majority (I believe).
In mainland China, the situation is often more complex than in Taiwan due to the political frictions and the memory of Western colonialism. In 2012, for example, the internet company Baidu and the forum mop.com “jointly launched a campaign with Sina Weibo […] calling on Internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China” (note). This campaign was a consequence of an episode that had happened in May, when a British national allegedly molested a Chinese woman and was detained.
The same year, the Chinese government tightened control on foreigners who entered China illegally or overstayed their visa. Chen Tianben, associate professor with the Chinese People’s Public Security University, stated that: “Apart from the clash of different cultures, some foreigners behave badly or even engage in criminal activities. Those who violate Chinese laws will also be punished as no one has privilege in front of the law.”
That is certainly true and I am not saying that foreigners who break the law should be left unpunished. I am simply stating that this is another proof of the love-hatred relationship, and of a certain degree of over-generalization, between Westerners and Chinese.
I myself keep on receiving offensive blog comments from Taiwanese, such as the following one: “white trashes stop writing blog and bring more white motherfucker to my country, i will kill some of you to bring up the motherfucking racistism over here, white cunt on“. Of course, I don’t publish this sort of comments, and I am absolutely certain that people like this one are perhaps 0,01% of the Taiwanese population. Nevertheless, a certain kind of resentment, diffidence and misunderstanding does exist, and being called ‘white trash’ or ‘white scum’ when I open my comment section, does not make me particularly happy.
How Much Integration is too Much Integration?
The real question is now: should foreigners feel that they have to prove that prejudices and stereotypes towards them are wrong? Do we have to adjust ourselves to local habits, customs and thinking? How can we cope with all those cultural differences that we may not like? Should we give ourselves up and become as similar as possible to the locals?
I will write a separate post about this topic (it’s already 1:54 am here and I can barely keep my eyes open). For now, I will just say that there are foreigners who try to accept local rules and behaviours in their entirety. Others seem to be rather indifferent. While others, like me, want to find a compromise; I don’t want to harm anyone or do anything that might hurt others, but I have my own standards and want to stay true to myself, no matter where I am. Besides, that is also the position that I maintain regarding foreigners in Europe. But, as I said, I’d better go to sleep now.
If you want, take a look at the the video of the Chengdu incident: