I’ve written before about what it is like to be a foreigner here in small-town China. It’s a weird cross between being completely anonymous (not many people can just saunter up to me, eavesdrop on my conversation, and then have a chat with me) and being a celebrity (complete with staring, cell phone paparazzi, and cat calls).
I’ve made peace with the fact that I will always and forever stick out here. I’m well-aware that I have no hope of ever passing as a Chinese person (I think I’ve mentioned before that the only time I’ve ever been mistaken for one was when it was dusk, I was wearing a hat and the hood of my sweater pulled up, and was climbing into the back of a taxi – apparently those are the conditions for me appearing Asian). Sure, I wish I could go about my business more anonymously, I wish I could carry my bags home from the supermarket without my neighbours noting exactly what I bought and discussing it as they sit outside in the evenings, but this is just the way it is. I don’t understand what is so fascinating about me (especially since my life is so incredibly dull most of the time), but people here are curious about foreigners (it’s like a real-life version of “Celebrities – They’re Just Like Us!”) and as long as they are somewhat respectful about it, I can just ignore it and get on with my life.
One thing I do lament as one of a small number of foreigners here in this city, and with my Mandarin being so limited, is that it can be difficult to meet people and make friends. Sure, there are the people I work with, and most of them are nice enough, but I don’t always want to hang out with work people. Through my husband, I have met some very nice people who I consider to be my friends as well as his, and I am very grateful that they treat me as my husband’s wife first, a friend second, and as a foreigner much later on the list. But meeting people on my own and becoming friends with them can prove difficult.
You see, that’s the thing about being a visible foreigner – for most people here, that is my first, and often only, identifying characteristic. People are so star-struck by the fact that I am a foreigner that I don’t think they bother to remember that there may be more to me than that (or maybe they figure they already know everything about me, and every other foreigner on the planet, from watching American movies). Add to that the fact that many don’t speak much English (and I speak dreadful Mandarin) and one ends up with a couple of big obstacles to friendship.
But there’s something else. The other problem is that making friends in China seems to be a totally different ball game than making friends in Canada. [This may end up coming off a little rant-y, and I suppose it is somewhat, but it is also something I am truly amused/baffled about.]
First of all, people here tend to jump on the friendship bandwagon far sooner than a western person would. It’s often one of the first phrases out of their mouths when they meet me – “Hi, my name is Bob. Nice to meet you. I hope we can be good friends.”
Now hang on just a minute there, Bob. You just walked up and started talking to me. We’ve known each other for all of a minute and the only thing I know about you is your name. Do you think that’s enough to base a friendship on? Really? Don’t you think we should at least chat a bit more to find out a few more things about each other (like which side of the stinky tofu debate you fall on, or whether or not you are an axe murderer) before we run off getting a set of those break-apart ‘Best Friends’ necklaces?
People here get pretty excited by the prospect of having a foreigner as a ‘friend’ – regardless of the fact that they have only met this person once (details). It’s a status boost for them, something they can brag about to their other friends, like having a designer handbag or expensive car. Are foreigners the new luxury goods?
But the biggest difference? The one that makes me the most uncomfortable? Making friends in China seems to be all about what the other person can offer you – it’s more like networking than good old, honest, because-we-have-things-in-common-and-get-along-well friendship (at least that’s what it seems like for me, probably because I am a foreigner).
People I meet always suggest we should be friends – with a caveat. “Let’s be friends and you can teach me English” (being a foreigner means that everyone always assumes you are an English teacher, which in my case is true, but isn’t true for many). I’m not sure what response they are expecting when they say that.
What I want to say is, “Yes, because that’s just what I would like to do after a long day of teaching English at work – to meet up with you and do my job all over again…for free…NOT.”
Honestly people, let’s get real here for a second. How would they like it if I discovered they were a cook at a restaurant and I said, “Let’s be friends and you can come and make me dinner every night”? Or that they worked in construction – “Let’s be friends and you can build me a house”? Or a doctor – “Let’s be friends and you can perform a little operation on me that I’ve been putting off”?
Certainly, getting things done in China is all about who you know – making connections with people who can help you later (getting lower prices on goods, processing paperwork faster). But to mix the idea of friendship up with all this is a bit confusing and makes it all seem very insincere.
Are your friends really friends, or are they simply acquaintances who might be able to do something for you when you need it? Is there such a thing as a genuine friendship here in China?