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Being a white citizen of the USA in rural China

Guest TKO

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I live in Sichuan province in a city that is rather off the beaten track. Before I found myself here, I roamed in Hangzhou and Beijing. I liked Beijing alot and hope to return soon.

Living here has offered me a plethora of challenges. The staring, the constand reminder of my isolation etc.. I've learned alot, I'm glad I've done it, it would have been better with some other "wai guo ren". All in all, I'll leave with a feeling of accomplishment. The challenging situation, has taugh me how to survive in stressful circumstances, and for that I'm grateful. Beer, has become a good "peng yo", and it's quite cheap. The surrounding countryside is fascinating, and I never grow weary of seeing the fields and villages, but, when all is said and done, I'm ready for civilization again.

Is there a foriegner out there who has spent some time in a rural setting, and hasn't wanted to return to a modern environment?

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Guest mirela_violeta


All I can say about living in a rural enviroment is that usually when we go to our summerhouse, in the countrysideit doesn't last more than 2 weeks and you kind of get bored with all the inactivity...but I would likw to learn from your experience in China though. I will be going there to study chinese in September and I don't know where exactly, my wish though was that it's in a big city with lots of foreigners learning chinese. From what you said it might be more interesting so, isn't it? I've experienced that last year at a summercourse in Germany where I met lots of wonderful english and american people and it was a great experience for me meeting people all over the world and seeing tthat we could get along fine though we come from countries which are so different. But can you learn chinese better in a place with less foreigners? I bet you could learn better. Though after a while you get tired of being the main attraction. Do they treat you diffrently because you are a foreigner? I come from Romania and I remember when I went to Bulgaria for a month with a scholarship , a kind of exchange for the german language which I also study besides chinese, being almost the only foreign there I was the main attraction, everyone wanted to see me, though few could speak english or german to me. Even though I didn't know their language we still managed to comunicate ...A re the chinese open to communication?

Anyway good luck and don't get too desperate...

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may i reply as a ten-year veteran resident in the PR of C?

The first poster mentioned staring as a major daily occurrence. I can only add that this is common anywhere in China, and only beginning to fade away in big cities such as Peking, Shanghai and Guangzhou (but just go to their limits, and experience total immersion there!).

Is it a Chinese fixture? I experienced it in India too. I experienced it a lot less in other third-world countries, Africa for example. Is it bad? I feel it is. I feel uncomfortable about it. I know the Chinese have been taught to be less staring at "waiguoren". In their staring you can see the total failure of their education system to instill in the masses any commonsense. It is bad because CHinese, on the other hand, do not learn to look people in the eye when addressing them. Notice how people speak to one another while looking in a totally different direction. THis often comes across to us as being a little, shall we say, shifty? So, when they do stare at you from all sides you do feel nervous. But again, they often seem to ignore your presence until you have passed them, then they shout at you, making you turn, and finding yourself being stared at.

What do they shout at you?

Yes, it is the "Hello!" syndrome now in this country. SInce maybe CHina's entry into the WTO, there is an ENglish craze in this country, and everybody at school learns that they must address waiguoren with a "hello". This is another nerve-rattling experience for many of us. Apart from this "hello" they know absolutely no English, and what's more, once they have made you pay your attention to them they start giggling stupidly. It is not unfair to say they often do that to enjoy themselves at your expense!

Luckily, I live in a large private estate and am relatively safe from this kind of behaviour. And you might wonder why someone can survive here for such a long time without going crazy himself (assuming, of course, that you agree that i am not crazy just yet). The answer is simple: Apart from this phenomenon, there is not much else that's worth complaining about. Bad food? Yes, but it is getting more varied. Poor housing? Not my problem - and in this respect CHina is fast catching up with advanced countries too. In rural parts, yes, it can be traumatising. In large cities, beware of high-density areas with their unhygienic and potentially crime-infested precincts. Transport? It is getting more expensive - but this is because trains are getting faster, more comfortable and have been declared smoking-free! Buses are now imported or made locally with the help of Western and Japanese partners.

All in all, as you can infer, China is morphing into another society. It changes unbelievably fast. Unfortunately, the good old is not always being kept. In downtown areas of large cities, old structures which we outsiders would consider worth protecting are fast disappearing and making way for gleaming white steely high-rises or concrete and glass towers. However, in this respect too, they are learning from the West (and being prodded by some Chinese themselves) how to keep traditional elements alive. Architecture has been very ugly for the first 5 decades after the so-called "liberation". Now they are imitating European building styles, often at kitsch level, but this certainly is preferable to the cubist grays of before!

Finally, can you learn Chinese in China? I have learnt the basics, not much more. I can't read nor write (well, a few hundred characters I do recognise, but I am making no active attempts at the moment at improving!). Here a few of my considerations:

The Chinese are not very helpful in your attempts at learning their language. There is an age-old bias that those 'guilau" and "laowai" can't learn our tongue! Well, you will see - they do not beat about the bush with their comments about your Mandarin should you trip up! To be fair, the more sensible among them will flatter you up. But you can't get competent linguistic support from them because they can't rationalise on their language. They feel you learn by forming habits, not by studying it (analysing in detail and in-depth). Ask them about the tones, and they can't say "rising" or "falling" or "flat" or "falling-rising".

Besides, the multitude of local vernaculars makes it rather difficult to get uniform answers to the same question.

Of course, you will be able to use your CHinese every day and get some lasting effect on your command of it through immersion. However, I would not suggest to anyone that they should start learning CHinese here! I teach English, and sometimes French or German here, and from my experience I can say they have a totally different attitude to learning and teaching.

The best proof of my contention is to be found in their poor grasp of English - and note that they are now compulsorily studying English for 5 years and more! Well, after two years an Israeli, Indian, African or European can speak ten times as much English as any Chinese can.

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Just a quick note about the tones.

There is nothing strange about not knowing which tones there are in a certain word. A Chinese person just knows the how the words are pronounced, and never think about the certain tones. At first this seemed strange to me too, but then i thought about my own first language, Swedish (which partly is a tonal language too), and realized that I don't have any idea about what tones we have (2? 3? dunno).

It's more like different ways of stressing syllables... I'm pretty sure you've never thought about what syllable you stress when you say inTELLigent, and that you'd be surprised if someone would wanna pronounce it intelliGENT... :)

So I guess that theoretically, you don't have to learn the tones, you could just "feel" how they are pronounced (as native speakers of tonal languages do).

But I think I'll stick to my tonemarks :)

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About the tones - I've found most Chinese know the tones and how to write them in pinyin, even if they might not be good at it. I can make motions with my hands and they know what I mean, or just ask "Wo yinggai shuo na shengdiao?"

Anyway, OP - I'm living in a "town" of 296,000 in Guizhou, right next to Sichuan. It's tiny, but still the second largest city in the province! I can tell you straight out that I know how you feel.

I grew up in a small town, as well - in the USA. I was happy to get out and go to college in a big city. I've enjoyed my year here (almost over), but to be honest, I am ready to spend my second year in China in a major city. I've always been a city girl at heart, probably because I was raised in a farmhouse! Rebellion, you see. However, I'm happy I did this; I've learned more about the real undercurrents that make up China in this town than I ever would in a major city. I've also learned to speak Chinese at a...uh...passable level (or so I pretend) in nine months flat. Why? No one speaks English. I could either learn Chinese or I could still have the school help me buy socks.

I'm not sure what to say in answer to your question. Do I love living in rural China? Yes. Would I do it again? Certainly. I could stay here indefinitely. But am I just a teensy bit eager to start looking at jobs in Beijing or Shanghai? God yes. Would I be the happiest person on aerth if I scored a *good* job someday in Hong Kong, my favorite city? YES! I'm actually quite torn between the two, though. I won't find what I've found here in any major city. It has most certainly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life (a tie with the six months I lived in India as a student...amazing. India is what got me interested in Asia, and to think I only went on some silly rebellious-college-kid impulse. Rural China is what forced me to grow up).

As for the staring - I actually kind of, well...like it. I'm generally pretty comfortable on a stage, on display, talking to people, being the center of attention (good thing too, I'm a teacher for the time being). Standing out was my pride and joy in the USA, and it's so easy here...effortless. Literally. I have perfected my Queen of England wave for those who stare at me on Xinhua Lu as I saunter by every day. I'll "Ni hao!" anyone who "HELLO!"s me. If I hear a comment about the "laowai" or the "waiguoren", I'll turn around and start questioning the person in Chinese. "What's so strange about laowai?! We're all people too. Is it funny to see a laowai who lives in Zunyi? You know I'm Lao Zunyi, right? Everywhere I go, laowai laowai laowai they say. I understand you! That's pretty funny too!"

I get reactions that range from amused to surprised to terrified. I'm almost offended now when people DON'T stare at me. Funny, in the familiar parts of town, they're so used to me that they've stopped. I guess it's easy to be familiar here - there's only one other foreigner in the whole town. I want to say, "Hey! Why aren't you looking at ME!? I'm *white*. Come on people, that's pretty weird in this town." I of course refrain.

I also get the salon in Laochen to streak my hair pink on occasion. I'll walk around wearing my Miao cap or my bellydancing belt from Kashgar. I figure if they're gonna stare, I may as well give them something fun to stare at.

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