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Contradictory Attitude towards Laowai?


Alex Whiteman

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I've been curious about this since I visited China for the first time and even though after that I lived here and so on. . . I'm still not sure I quite understand what's the real situation.

My question is rather broad but it goes more or less like this:

a) When you go about you see all this marketing that uses "white faces" to tell you that a product is classy, fashionable, etc. . . You see blatant attempts at copying western architecture (castle building anyone?). Imported goods in the supermarket have a special section for them (in my country, and I'm saying it this way to avoid falling into a some metalanguage abyss, "the local chocolate is side-by-side with the imported chocolate"). Chinese girls chase western (white) guys and, if successful, then show them off to everyone. Such thing as face jobs exist because, supposedly, a company that has foreigners in it displays high status because, supposedly, foreigners must have advanced skills/knowledge/whatever. . .

b) On the other hand. . . you hear statements like "Chinese don't want us here" and "Don't try to do business in China if you are not Chinese because you'll get screwed by such-and-such and so-and-so". . . and a general notion that westerners are, on-principle, (1) not wanted as part of the system (2) somehow looked down upon. For example the "being a white monkey" feeling some English teachers talk about. Then, as I personally see it, being scoffed at for not speaking fluent Chinese and the scam attempts. . .

Now, "a" and "b", as contradictory as they are, seem to go hand-in-hand. On top of that, it seems like these attitudes go beyond a "mixed feelings" kind of thing and represent instead some kind of belief system - which I cannot make sense of and hence the question. . .

_

This has come up a lot in my job search.
  For example: I was interviewed for a supplier-relations job. The job was very simple in itself but it was tied to business development and strategy concerns, so, and given my busines background, I tried to explore some of the ideas with the interviewer. I could immediately tell the interviewer was not the least bit interested in what I had to say (or explaining me anything for that matter) - I could tell she was sniggering at some level. . . and, also, I could tell she hadn't really read my CV (many years of experience in different businesses as well as degrees, skills and courses of all kinds).
 They were also going to use me for a face role in the occasional fair. . . because foreigners are supposedly awesome. . . and we were discussing a wage that was probably 6 times what a local would earn for a job like that. 
 Then the final offer was basically a scam attempt so I never got back to them. . .

So, dissecting this. . .
1) If you are going to hire someone that costs you up to 6 times what an average employee does, then it makes sense to try and get the most from your cash and see how else they can contribute to the business. After all, if foreigners represent all this know-how and excellence to the extent that you want to have them as props to make you look good (a very extreme position IMO), you might as well try and tap such a resource, particularly if you are dealing with someone who has real and relevant qualifications for whatever is that you need. Again, at the end of the day, you are still going to have to dish out the cash. . .
2) If foreigners represent such an ideal that only having them around your company already makes you look good, then what does scamming them make of you? What is left for you after you purposefully damage or destroy that which you aspire to be? Even just attempting it is already very bad in itself.  . . .and finally, why would you want to hire someone that can be so easily scammed? It is precisely in uncharted territory that you need someone sharp to watch your back!

__

The examples are many and so are Chinese people. . . and some are more clever and educated than others.

. . .but the contradiction is there, hitting you in the face the very moment you go out, even if it's just walking a block to the corner shop.
 So, is it an illusion caused by different people standing either on "a" or "b". . . or are there a significant number of individuals contradictory like that interviewer I had, and if so, is there anything - a missing idea - that "solves" the contradiction i.e. proves it false by making "a" and "b" compatible.

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IMHO, a lot of this can be explained as a combination of two simple factors:

- relative cultural homogeneity of China* and long isolation, coupled with the also isolationist "expat syndrome", and

- the fact that it's a developing country, and status, wealth and "sexiness" is often seen as connected to being foreign (from "the West")

Many Chinese have not had a chance to form deep relationships with foreigners, and do not really understand how they "tick", and will stereotype based on sitcoms and anecdotes. The scams are based on exploiting these stereotypes.

* Of course there is significant cultural diversity in China, but I would not consider it a melting pot the same way the US, Brazil and Britain are. A black or white person would stick out considerably more in China, and would be considerably less likely to have grown up there than they would be in, say, the US.

The combination of Confucianism and the one-party rule imposing a certain value code did not make this better.

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I'm not sure there is a contradiction.

 

Your (a) above suggests that Laowais are rich.

 

Your (b) suggests that Laowais don't know the ways of the Third World and make good targets for scams.  

 

Is there a contradiction there?

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In my experience it really depends where you are in the country. When I was living in small towns, I witnessed basically no scamming at all apart from the normal efforts of vendors to get people in general to overpay. One nice gentleman even gave me an automatic discount to sort of account for the fact that I wasn't haggling. I'm sure he still made more than he normally would, but it was still a nice gesture. The local restaurants were always extremely kind as having a foreigner coming to eat is a commentary on the safety and quality of the food. I mean, I could easily afford to eat pretty much anywhere and if I got sick, I'd just go elsewhere.

 

Since I was dealing with people who had never actually met a 老外 before, it was mostly curiosity more than anything else.

 

The big cities and places where 老外 generally go are very different. There you have to be quite a bit more careful. When I was in Dongguan, I'd get off the bus and find that my pockets had mostly been rifled through. I never actually lost anything because I took precautions, but I think that's much more common in densely populated areas in general. My part of the US has no pickpockets because people are rarely close enough together to make it worthwhile.

 

But, I think uniformly, westerners are seen as rich and relative to the locals we usually are, but not typically to the extent that the locals assume.

 

As for the women wanting white boyfriends, I don't think that's really that much different from the US and other western nations. Over there we're the ones that are kind of exotic and hard to get, it's the same sort of thing that makes Chinese women so much hotter over here than over there, there's a much smaller supply of them and people are typically coded to want rare genes. If I recall correctly there was an article on that a few weeks ago, it turns out that this is essential to evolution.

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I don't think there is a contradiction. a) depicts the  "white is right" mentality that still plagues Chinese culture and b) shows the negative side of the aforementioned mentality. Neither in a) nor b) did you mention that white foreigners are viewed as intelligent well rounded people, you only mentioned them being used as trophies (due to their looks). a) In effect it seems that you are being treated like a western good on a shelf. It's not about wealth, personality or anything else other than the fact that you are white.

 

That being said, it's possible that because you are treated as a good, some feel that you should be seen and not heard. Therefore, there is an underlying mentality that a even a white foreigner cannot do a Chinese job better than a Chinese person can (which could explain why your interview went the way it did). Furthermore, as a result of a) white foreigners may be viewed as being ignorant to the inner workings of the country, which results in scamming. It's odd that there seems to be a superiority and inferiority complex instilled at the same time, but that's what I deduct from your statement. I.e. some Chinese feel inferior and jealous towards white skin, but superior in terms of intellect. I am NOT saying this is the case in reality, I am merely speculating based on what you have said.

 

However, you should also keep in mind that you are an immigrant in their country, and like in most countries there will be hostility towards you when you try to enter the labor market and when you try to buy things etc. and that could be the cause, it may have more to do with you being a foreigner as opposed to being of a different race. Either way I don't think you should complain, after all, you are treated much better than darker-skinned minorities who struggle even to get teaching jobs.

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There isn't necessarily a contradiction between (a) and (b). Your point (a) suggests Chinese may be covetous of a Western lifestyle, but that doesn't really imply they value Westerners or their ideas more or less than anyone else. What you describe reminds me of people who have "trophy" girlfriends or wives as a way to signal their status relative to their peers. 

 

Assuming my reading of (a) is correct, what you describe in (b) isn't surprising. IMO, it's too big of a reach to say that Westerners are what Chinese people "aspire to be." 

 

I remember talking to a Chinese grad student at a large state university who had been in the U.S. for a couple of months. When asked what she thought of the U.S., she responded that it was great except for the Americans. That was the first time of many I've heard similar ideas from Chinese students in the U.S. Very small n for sure, but still food for thought. 

 

The following book talks a bit about this issue:

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China's New Rich

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As for the women wanting white boyfriends, I don't think that's really that much different from the US and other western nations. Over there we're the ones that are kind of exotic and hard to get, it's the same sort of thing that makes Chinese women so much hotter over here than over there, there's a much smaller supply of them and people are typically coded to want rare genes.

Not to reheat a very old and ongoing discussion, but if this was the whole reason, then Chinese men should be about as attractive to white women as white men are to Chinese women. Which is not the case. It's not just the 'exotic' factor, but also some idea of white men being superior. But even then, only a very small percentage of Chinese women have a preference for white men. Most of them prefer someone who shares their background, as is the case in most countries.
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It's not the whole reason, Lu, but it's the only variable that has changed and really the only one I can think of that accounts for the additional desirability.

 

I have never observed any differences in America between the perception of women and men to their Chinese counterparts. And if I were to only go by my social circle, I would assume that women were far more likely to go for Chinese and Asian men than men are for Chinese and Asian women as that's far less common amongst people I know.

 

This isn't a matter of who are you going to marry, marriage has basically nothing to do with background. Background influences how long the pairing lasts. This is primarily a hormonal and desirability issue.

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I have never observed any differences in America between the perception of women and men to their Chinese counterparts. And if I were to only go by my social circle, I would assume that women were far more likely to go for Chinese and Asian men than men are for Chinese and Asian women as that's far less common amongst people I know.

That is a rather unique social circle you're in. It's not like that anywhere I have been, and statistically white man-Chinese woman is also a lot more common than Chinese man-white woman. Plus the whole trope of Chinese men being effeminate, less manly, perverted, etc etc, as shown on tv.

Anyway. Very old discussion that has been talked about at length, both here and in many other places, I don't really want to revive it here as it's not really the topic of this thread. But it's not just the 'exotic' factor, status and perceived power play a very big role.

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