The World Economic Forum releases a global tourism report every year which includes a survey on the attitude of each country’s’ population toward foreigners. China, which has many foreigners both living and visiting every year, ranked near the bottom. I couldn’t help but wonder: is this really accurate?
I reflected on this for a couple of days, trying to decide whether or not this statistic was representative of my experience. I’ve often commented to my friends that being a foreigner in China is exhausting at times. The constant stares and the times when someone automatically assumes you don’t speak Chinese because you are a foreigner does get tiring. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it isn’t frustrating. I’d also be lying if I said I always gracefully and calmly handle these situations. It just wears you down.
I did, however, have an enlightening experience this weekend that I think is more representative of my time in China. A colleague of my dad’s was in Suzhou visiting her old medical school friends. She invited me to dinner with them and they all accepted me warmly, asking about my job here and how long I had been in China. Despite our language barrier, they were incredibly kind. We sat down to dinner and although the majority of the conversation took place in the Chinese (and thus I understood very little), they never forgot about me.
Whenever a new dish arrived I was always asked to try it first. They watched as I handled my chopsticks and tried the new food. They were pleased when I liked it and ate more. Although it wasn’t possible for me to participate actively in the conversation, I felt welcomed by their hospitality, which I couldn’t have been more grateful for. In my experience, foreigners here in China, (even ones who speak little Chinese) are often treated very hospitably.
I want to leave you with a story a friend of mine recently told me. She was roaming the streets of Lincang, Yunnan last summer with a co-teacher when they struck up a conversation with the laoban (store owner) of one shop. He asked why there were so many foreigners in Lincang for the summer. The two started talking about the work they were doing and why they were here of all places. Interested, the laoban and his family wanted to learn more and invited them out to bubble tea. He and his family proceeded to close their shop, pile into the family car – with more people than seatbelts – and drove to the bubble tea store.
My friend talked to the laoban and his family for over an hour about a range of topics – from the one-child policy, to food waste in the US and China, to China’s education system. The father, who had been quiet during the conversation, suddenly spoke up. He looked at my friend and said, “Look at us. We are from two different places in the world and we are able to have great conversations.” He said this doesn’t happen enough because people use language barriers, cultural differences as excuses. People are the same inside. They have the same hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. The barriers are superficial and prevent us from enjoying each other’s company. He said, “you can have fun wherever you are and in whatever situation you find yourself in, even if you think you cannot communicate with the people around you. You just have to be willing to sit down and find common ground.”