I finally started my new job and I’ve been crazy busy for the last few weeks. I spend most of my time in smaller Chinese cities touring facilities and carrying out inspections of security programs at said facilities. For some of these facilities, a foreigner showing up is a big deal. I’ve observed some really interesting stuff the last couple of weeks that has lead to no small amount of embarrassment for me. Let me explain.
First of all, it’s important to understand that I am not high up in the company. I have a team of really fantastic Chinese co-workers who are all doing the same job as me, but they are more experienced at it, as I have just started. I have a background in what I’m doing, but I am new to the company and to their way of doing things, so I rely heavily on my co-workers for coaching and advice. Also, I am the only foreigner on our team. Well, the only non-Asian foreigner. However, in spite of being the same “rank” as my co-workers and far less experienced, I get treated very, very differently when we’re doing site visits. For example, at one point last weekend we had to go through a metal detector screening using hand held metal detectors. My Chinese co-workers went first, no big deal, but when it was my turn, I was asked to “wait a second” and they literally pulled out a red carpet for me to stand on while they did the screening. HUMILIATING. Later (this happened at multiple sites), when it came time to order lunch for me and my team, the facility staff ordered regular old cheap Chinese take out for my colleagues, but ordered something special for me…expensive pizza from Papa John’s. That was also humiliating and actually a huge pain in the ass because they’d already ordered a ton of Chinese food (that was thrown away) that looked fine and I was starving, but they made me wait an extra 90 minutes for the pizza because they didn’t want to give Chinese food to a “foreign guest.” Part of that was obviously their pre-conceived idea that a foreigner can not eat Chinese food or use chopsticks (it was mentioned). I am also starting to suspect that Chinese people think their own cuisine is disgusting (just kidding…). I don’t even eat pizza because it makes me sick! But them going out of their way to order special food for me left me with no option but to eat it because I felt guilty, but it also forced me into a situation where I was proving their point of “see? foreigners love pizza and hate chinese food!” Also, I got super sick from the pizza. Additionally, I don’t like having this divide between me and my co-workers. I’m sure they understand that I didn’t ask for special treatment, but I have to wonder if over time there would be any resentment caused by me constantly being given better treatment than them for the same exact job.
Ok, so I get that Chinese people just really want to be good hosts and make sure I’m taken care of. I get that. On one level it’s quite touching, but mostly it’s just super embarrassing. Nothing makes me happier than when Chinese people just treat me like everyone else. There was this restaurant that I used to go to and when I went in, they’d throw a menu at me and an order pad and say “write your own order down!” Just like they did to every Chinese person who went in there. I didn’t get babied, I wasn’t coddled and they even made fun of how ugly my characters were. I loved it. (My characters are so ugly.)
Another thing that kept happening is something that ALL foreigners have experienced. You open your mouth and say “ni hao” or “xie xie” and the world stops. Every Chinese person in the room is falling over themselves complimenting your AMAZING Mandarin. Even if that’s all you know. At times, the encouragement can be nice, but it can also reach a point where it’s just kind of insulting, even though I KNOW that’s not the intent. Knowing that Chinese people are just trying to be nice when they say things like this hasn’t really kept me from being annoyed by it. I think I finally came up with a comparison that explains why this makes me so uncomfortable: Let’s say you have a small child who goes to kindergarten and then comes home one day and tells you that they have a new teacher at school who teaches Chinese. Your kid then says “ni hao, xie xie, ni hao ma” whatever. Your kid is 5 years old, so you get really excited and you say “Wow! GOOD JOB! You’re so smart!” blah blah whatever people say to little kids who learn something. You’re excited that your kid picked it up so quickly. If we take that same scenario and your kid is an adult who comes home from work or college or whatever and says the same thing, your reaction is probably going to be not so enthusiastic, maybe like “that’s great, keep it up!” And you’ll go on with your day. In fact, you might even wonder if there’s something wrong with your child. Basically, my point is that we have different standards of success for small children and adults. When it comes to foreigners and Mandarin, we all get the 5 year old’s standard of success, which is somewhat insulting. I mean, we all sound like 5 year olds at some point in the learning process, but that doesn’t mean we actually only have the intellectual capability of a 5 year old (in most cases). I think one of the reasons why non-Asian foreigners have such a hard time learning Chinese is because of this. Chinese people won’t raise the bar on us and start expecting more. They don’t tell us when we’ve said something wrong because “awww, she’s trying, that’s cute” and some foreigners I suspect, believe the compliments and don’t realize that Chinese people are just being nice and maybe don’t push themselves as much as they would if Chinese people were less forgiving about it. How many of you have been told “Your Chinese is better than mine!” by a Chinese person? Come on! Who’s going to believe that? I’d almost think they were making fun of me except that most Chinese are simply too nice to do that. Again, even though I know it’s not the intent, I still can’t help but feel a little insulted when a Chinese person freaks out over me saying one word in Chinese. To me, it implies a combination of “we didn’t think you were smart enough to learn this language and we didn’t expect you to respect our culture enough to learn the language.” I think they owe it to themselves to expect that foreigners who come here long term bother to learn the language at least a little.