Chinese immigrants vs. Laowai expats

I always try to imagine parallels and differences between Chinese immigrants raising their kids in North America and us raising a family China. Our first child is due in the middle of Julywas born seven weeks early, and if all goes well we’ll move back to China in September (our families would never have forgiven us if we’d had our child on another continent!), so when I spend time with Chinese friends on this side of the Pacific it often makes me imagine what it will be like for our daughter (and her future siblings) in China. Even though Chinese immigrants and 老外 expats both live in a country and culture not their own, I wonder if their experiences are more different than they are similar.

For example, I recently stayed three nights with a Chinese family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the second time. The parents came to the U.S. as adults when their now teenage son was two. They have two other especially cute kids: a six-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter.

Within the local Chinese circles that this family runs in, the general level of English is better than most other Chinese I know — actually, some of them have better English than a lot of Americans (especially in Louisiana)! However their strengths are reading and writing (lots of advanced degree holders from LSU), and when talking they’re still more comfortable in Chinese, which was great for me.

Although all three of their kids understand Chinese, the youngest two will only respond in English. I don’t know if they can’t or just won’t speak Chinese. When the four-year-old speaks, you can hear a southern U.S. drawl in her vowels, especially when she’s disappointed: “Aw may-an!”

It’s such a common situation for Chinese immigrant families. It seemed the parents of the Chinese kids at the local Saturday Mandarin school in south Baton Rouge were all struggling to not let their kids lose their family’s language.

This probably won’t be our problem in China. While Chinese immigrant families to North America often struggle unsuccessfully to raise kids who retain their family’s culture and language of origin, North American 外国人 in China (few if any truly immigrate to China) have the opposite problem: getting so thoroughly sucked into the foreigner subculture in their jobs and social lives that they abdicate the opportunity to pick up serious levels of Chinese. Their kids grow up in the international school system or home school, if they even stay in China long enough to grow up. I’ve only heard of a North American kid losing their English once, and that was in a book where the kid’s parents had moved to China in the 50’s to join the Revolution.

In Tianjin there were tons of foreigner kids (most?) who couldn’t speak Chinese; they spend their whole China experience inside the foreign bubble. Chinese immigrant kids, by contrast, typically go through the American school system. The only foreign kids I met in Tianjin that could speak Chinese (and they spoke fantastic Chinese) were the exceptions; their parents had gone out of their way to put them through Chinese kindergartens and some primary school, rather than start them in international schools or home schooling like most foreigner families.

Still, it’s a scary thing to imagine — your kids not being fluent in your own language, not being able to communicate smoothly with you or your parents or your siblings or your nephew and nieces! That must be just a brutal experience for immigrant families in Vancouver and the grandparents who can’t talk with with their grandkids.

45 thoughts on “Chinese immigrants vs. Laowai expats”

  1. I think if I went back to New Zealand, I would see a similar comparison. I can’t help but think there are two major factors at work here:

    1: The immigrant societies of North America and Australasia; and

    2: The remaining hangover from Western imperialism. An awful lot of westerners I’ve met here in China go through life with an innate, if often subconscious, sense of their own cultural superiority.

    Although Chinese have not always been welcome- indeed, have historically been made explicitly unwelcome- in North America and Australasia, that these societies have always been immigrant societies has always created an impetus for immigrants to adapt, at least, if not assimilate. And it’s not any imperialist nonsense, either, because the immigrants, be they Asian, African, Latin American, Pacific or European, are usually just as keen to adapt (while preserving, of course, their home culture) as the locals are for them to assimilate.

    On the other hand, far too many Westerners (and Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers) come to Mainland China (and the rest of Asia and Africa and the Pacific and Latin America- I’m extrapolating from my experience of China here, so correct me if I’m wrong) full of their own sense of superiority, and so see no real need to fully engage with the host society. After all, they’re here to civilise the barbarians, not to be barbarianised.

  2. chriswaugh bj,

    In regards to your experiences: I’d have to agree that there are quite a few disgruntled expats who are either unhappy with being sent to Asia or are suffering from the cultural shock of being a minority for the first time in their life. So, I don’t think you’re extrapolating at all.

    On the other hand in my experience I have met, more than a few, expats in Japan who would love to engage in the host society but who(I know these are weak excuses):

    (a)lack the time because of their tight schedules
    (b)Are isolated in language bubble at work
    (c1)feel isolated because of the language barrier
    (c2)and their irrational fear of learning languages/new cultures.
    (d)Fear(but admire) the greatness of 漢字
    Those same people will try save face(lie) by saying they believe 漢字 is too complicated or difficult and should be abolished.
    Deep in their hearts they are all envious of the awesome knowledge and beauty of 漢字!

    One more thing:
    What is a ‘westerner’? Does this refer to people only from a certain location or does it refer to their mode of thought regardless of where they are born on the globe?

    In other words, would a ‘white’ African be a Westerner or an Easterner? Would someone from Turkey or the middle east be an Easterner or a Westerner? Is a African-America or an Arab-American a Westerner an Easterner or something totally different?

  3. Joel,

    That sounds a lot like my situation:

    “…it’s a scary thing to imagine — your kids not being fluent in your own language, not being able to communicate smoothly with…your parents or your siblings or your nephew and nieces!”

    My wife and I are trying hard to raise our children to be multicultural and trilingual or at least bilingual! We send our daughter to a nursery school(Japanese of course) nearby.

    My wife, 雪子/Yukiko speaks only Japanese to them, and I only in my language to them. But, my daughter, 夢乃/Yumeno (3 years old) continues to reply back to me in Japanese. Our son, 暖/Dan is too young to speak, yet.

    Sometimes, I wish there was an international school or bubble community of foreigners around here for my children to interact with. However, we live in the rural, 青森県/Aomori prefecture.

    On the other hand, my wife’s parents are relieved and as happy as can be. They were afraid I’d take their daughter to live in a country far, far, far away from them, and they feared they wouldn’t be able to communicate with their grandchildren. But, we live 45 minutes away from them and they can communicate to their grandchildren in 日本語. At the moment none of this scares me because I am so happy to have a good relationship with my inlaws.

  4. @ chriswaugh_bj

    I think you make an excellent point.

    The major differences between the Chinese immigrant experience vs the Laowai expat experience is based on the history of minorities in their countries.

    In North America you had racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Head Tax. And in general, all minorities were treated as second class citizens.

    Now obviously a lot has changed, but there is still a huge incentive for immigrants to assimilate as soon as possible or the risk being ostracized again.

    Whereas the Westerners in post-modern China were colonists who had all the power. They created their spheres of influence and lived within a bubble.

    And even today, this colonial mentality still exists to some extent, and so it’s very easy for expats to simply disregard their host country.

    * * *

    So it’s good to see you recognize that and are willing to make the effort to interact with the larger outside community.

  5. Some quick thoughts from a whitey (Kiwi) currently living in China (Guangzhou for 4+ years now), with a little one (2 1/4 years old now).

    I don’t intend to send my child(ren?) to kindergarten or school in China. I think my reasons for this are fairly down to earth and practical (but I don’t mind if those of you up on your Foucault reinterpret it power-relation-style!! ;-) ).

    I take my daughter to a local kindergarten 2 mornings each week, and I stay with her the entire time (yes, my white face has bought me special privileges — all the other parents have to drop off their little ones at the gate). I would *never* leave her alone there, based on what I see. My reasons:

    (a) The premises are physically unsafe. I have seen far too many “accidents” in my time there over the last 5 months.

    (b) I don’t trust *most* of the teachers there in their ability to teach. One of the favoured teaching methods is to sit the little ones on seats for extended periods of time and lecture at them, like they are university students! And, while most teachers are lovely (though unskilled), I have seen the odd always-grumpy teacher repeatedly hit and pull the children around for no good reason.

    To summarise, while I agree (and sympathise), for the most part, with the assimilation comments above, I would also add that there is an education-quality difference between Chinese and “Western” schools, which may justifiably influence expats.

    FWIW, my description above is of a 500RMB per month local kindy. I don’t have the money (or motivation) to send my daughter to the 2000+RMB per month schools.

    Note too, my wife is Chinese, and a Prof in Chinese language. My little one is 50-50 Mandarin-English. She speaks English when talking with me (and other whiteys) and Mandarin when talking with Mama (and other yellowies).

    Note three, if I was back home in New Zealand, I would probably home-school my daughter anyway.

    I guess all this makes me a non-typical laowai, but who amongst us is typical, anyway?

    And Joel, best wishes for your family in China!

  6. I think another point is that most immigrants come to the US with the “American Dream” in mind. Of course, some take it more literally, and call it by the term, and others are less zealous about it. But the point is that most come here to settle and pursue not just a better life and opportunities, but an “improved” and distinctly American way of life. There is the idea that coming to the US is a goal in and of itself, regardless of whether the more obvious goal is money, occupation, or academics. Therefore, the idea of assimilating, in order to become more American, or in order to survive in America, is necessary.

    On the other hand, many immigrants to China are in the wave of recognizing the huge market/labor-force that China provides. Or for NGOs of some sort or another. So the goal is not really China, or to be a part of China. The attitude is largely, “I’m going to remain and outsider, and China is a means to get what I want”, regardless of whether “what I want” is money or more altruistic stuff.

    My point is that immigrants generally treat the US (although sometimes reluctantly) as an adoptive parent or teacher, and regard themselves as an adoptees or students. Similarly, the US is pretty used to and assumptive of this kind of relationship as well. Thus the relationship is more intimate, if not more respectful. On the other hand many foreigners in China regard the country as a host…or even a hotel…and long-staying foreigners are regarded as perpetual tourists and vacationers.

    I don’t know if I agree that Westerners have neo-colonist mentality necessarily, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Westerners come to China and generally start (or are regarded to start) in China on the higher-rungs of society/economic-order, whereas immigrants to the US, even if they are well-to-do in their homelands, come to the US expecting a clean state and a bottom-up climb.

  7. Interesting stuff, everyone. I’m slow to reply on account of the newborn, not b/c I don’t appreciate your thoughts.

    Your kids’ situation sounds more similar to that of ABCs rather than foreign kids in TJ, who have to go out of their way to learn the local language. Are you planning to do anything about their English (English curriculum homeschool, international school, etc.?) I don’t know anything about Japan — is putting them through the Japanese public system a viable option for you guys? I suppose foreigners in TJ could put their kids through the Chinese system, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to if they had the choice.

    Very interesting experience, I’m glad you shared it. Of course we planned to check out the schools closely and ask around a lot, but I’ll be extra careful/paranoid now. Do the teachers treat you and your child differently, and if so, how (other than letting you sit in)? Do you catch any vibes from them about how they feel about your ‘special privileges’?

    I’m glad you balanced out the discussion about the colonialism mentality. Westerns suspiciously make verbally flagellating our cultural heritage for the sins of the past something of a hobby (as if that somehow make us less guilty for continuing to enjoy and perpetuate the benefits of our past collective global actions?). Much more to say, but alas, bottles and diapers await! :)

  8. Putting them through the Japanese public system is the only option for our children after preschool in the country side where we live. They’ll get English Grammar and Writing classes in junior high school and high school here though, but that my friend, is another story.

  9. @Joel,

    My story with the kindergarten is that my daughter and I were going for a walk together, and we just happened to pass by the kindergarten. We stopped to watch the children playing through the fence. We were very quickly invited in and given a tour, and ended up playing there for a couple of hours. We went back a few days later and struck a deal — I would come with my daughter and speak English with the children, and my daughter would be free.

    I find I relate much better to the kiddies there than the adults. Quite a few kiddies have attached themselves to me and want to play with me all the time. (I have noticed that almost none of the teachers “play” with the children, and the children really love it when I sit down with them or be silly with them.)

    The adults, in contrast, mostly simply ignore me. I laughingly call it the Chinese “High Context” cultural trait. No one tells me what is going on. The teachers have never discussed their lessons with me, or asked me to help with any activities. I have never been invited to the staff room. Basically, my daughter and I are given the freedom of the kindergarten, and everyone is polite, but we are not really included. If we want to do something, we just go and join in ourselves.

    I feel the teachers treat my daughter differently than the other children. They frequently tell her she is cute/beautiful, and reverently stroke her hair/face. They don’t treat her nearly as roughly as they do with the other children. They will force the other children to sit down, get into line, stop playing, etc, but my daughter can wander about at will. If I want my daughter to join the others, then I am the one who must give her instructions or discipline her.

  10. I’m sure a Laowai will get lots of attention in China, Especially white people. As a chinese, i can think of several reasons from my personal perspective:

    1.Laowai are still rare in China. 有时候还有一种异域文化的吸引。

    2.Different Skin Tone. In china, we have a Old Saying “一白遮三丑”。 That simply indicates that most Chinese love someone who has light skin color. I remember when I was in Kindergarten in early 1990s, there is a white and a black kids in my class. The teacher treated them obviously different. The were given the better food and caring. The black kid is a little pity. when some kids was very naughty, the teacher told them “If you keep being naughty, then i will let you to sleep with that black kid and turn you black.” and she pull the kid over to the black kid’s bed and he started to cry.

    3.Different look. Usually westerner’s bonestructure are more 3-dimensional than ours. Therefore, in our aesthetic perspective, Laowai are prettier and more attractive….


    On the contrary, if an Asian walks on a street in Western Country, he will be normally ignored by the crowed.


    Speaking of raising a foreign child in China,

    What’s the reason that you want your child to be educated in chinese education system.

    To Speak Chinese Fluently? to act and think like a Chinese? To work and live in china after Graduate?

    For me, go to a international school would be better choice. Chinese education system are being knowned as 填鸭式教育 which provide student with a very strong knowledge basis, but lack of 对孩子本身素质的培养。In this stage, I would to say a International school will provide more all-rounded education.

    I think there is a school called the International of Beijing. you can check it out.

    It is e a school runs under an American education system from Lower Elementary school to High school function in IB system. They also have a Chinese language program.

    Here is their intro of Chinese Language program.
    “The Chinese Language Program has expanded rapidly to meet diverse needs of students. It offers two tracks, Academic and Neo-Native, ranging from primary level to advanced International Baccalaureate to serve students from K-12. Over 80 language classes are going on on a daily basis. Students are placed according to their backgrounds and abilities.

    Currently, there are 21 professionally-trained committed teachers and over 1,300 students taking Chinese as a second language. The program is designed and implemented to cultivate student’s interest to lay a solid foundation of Chinese language proficiency. It also exposes students to the unique experiences China offers to foster awareness, appreciation, and respect for Chinese people, language, culture, and environment.”

    In their website they also have some photos and videos.

  11. @ tin

    RE: #3 bone structure — I don’t think that Chinese necessary find Western bone structure more attractive than average, but rather it’s because China is bombarded with Hollywood media.

    Go to any movie theatre and you see a lot of Hollywood movies. Look at all the magazines and ads for high end fashion brands and it features rich-looking white models.

    Therefore a portion of people in China (and Asia) associate wealth and luxury with Westerners, and that’s where the appeal comes from.

    And remember, most Chinese people don’t see many non-Asians except through Hollywood media. So whatever stereotypes exist there gets carried into China as well.

    ~ ~ ~

    RE: Asians being ignored in Western countries

    This again depends on which country and where. In more integrated cities in America, sure, but go to a rural area and you’ll be stared at.

    Also in Europe it’s completely different. I have Asian friends that visited Spain and they were gawked at and people wanted to take pictures with them!

    ~ ~ ~

    RE: International School

    For the record I went to an International School and though I agree the education is more similar to the Western system, just beware of the type of kids that go there.

    A significant portion of the kids at my school were from extremely wealthy families and they had a sense of entitlement and contempt for the “commoners.”

    These schools tend to create an “us vs. them” mentality and frankly because everything’s taught in English, I had classmates who were there from K to 12 that never learned how to speak, read, or write proper Chinese!

  12. @ JJ:

    1.bone structure: “I don’t think that Chinese necessary find Western bone structure more attractive than average.” I think this is the typical westerner’s thinking that you don’t think asians’ look are less attractive than westerners'(did I understand your sentence correctly?). however, but there is a obvious asethetical difference between chinese and Laowai’s in general. I remembered when i was in Canada attending ESL courses, my classmate presented a speech about plastic surgery. At that time it was very popular in Korea. She shown us a Korean pop star’s before and after photo. In our oriental perspective, she definite look much better after the surgery, but my professor said “i don’t think she look prettier than before, she just looks more like a european. i think she was pretty before.” Of course, most of my classmates felt speechless. I don’t know if you had a chance to many chinese people, many of my girl friends envy westerner’s face bonestructure.

    Maybe is because we envy the differences, the things we don’t have.

    2. RE: Asians being ignored in Western countries.

    Good point, it’s true. I remember when i went to New brunswick’s Fredricton (Canada). We were stared by the locals.

    However, My personal feeling is, the westerners in more integrated countries are not fond of chinese due to our reputation. Therefore, they don’t bother to talk to you, to make friends with you at least in Birmingham, England. Sure, the language is a big problem. But Sometimes they just like to ignore you when saw you face to face. It happend on me many times. Although i didn’t make friends with the locals successfully, i established a friendship with a polish couple which is nice. They really like oriental culture.

    3. RE: International School.
    Good point, what you said is true. I came from school like this. Therefore, I’m pretty aware the situation.

    Parent’s education is extremely important. They are the first role model in a child’s life. If they foster the kid properly, he will have a all-rounded character.

    However, holding a foreign passport in China has a huge advantage when applying unversity competing with other natives. They are much easier to get into 1st class univeristy in China.

    What i’m trying to say is 鱼与熊掌不可兼得.(how to this phrase in English?). You have to consider the cons and pros carefully for the kids’ future.

    my viewpoint are inconsistent, hope you can understand.:)

  13. @ tin

    Yeah, I see where you’re coming from, and it’s always interesting to hear different perspectives :)

    ~ ~ ~

    RE: bone structure and aesthetics

    I still think it’s a trend that’s influenced by the media. If you ask the older generation of Chinese, they’re aesthetic preference is very different.

    Likewise, in both the Victorian era and Tang dynasty, there was a preference for more voluptuous women.

    So I strongly do believe that social conditioning can affect what a person considers more attractive. For example, have you heard of The Doll Experiment?

    > [In 1954 psychologist Kenneth Clark] showed
    > children a black doll and a white doll and asked
    > black children which doll they preferred.
    > The majority chose the white.

    This experiment was performed again in 2005
    > with 21 black kids in New York and found
    > that 16 of them liked the white doll better.

    > When asked to show the doll that “looks bad,”
    > the girl chose the black doll. But when Davis
    > asked the girl, “Can you give me the doll that
    > looks like you?” the black girl first touched the
    > white doll and then reluctantly pushed the
    > black doll ahead.


    ~ ~ ~

    RE: Asians being ignored in Western countries.

    I see what you’re saying. I think a lot of it has to do with exposure. For example, in Asia there’s a lot of Western media: movies, TV shows, ads, magazines, etc. And most Asians start to learn English in elementary school.

    Now I’m not sure how it is in Europe, but in America we’re somewhat close-minded about that. Sure, we’ll accept your immigrants but please leave your ideology and culture behind :)

    In fact, we even have to remake British shows before we’ll show them to an American audience (And definitely no subtitles allowed).

  14. @JJ,

    RE: bone structure and aesthetics

    It really is a big topic, isn’t it?
    It could be true of what you said.
    Sure, i have spoken to older generations. our family used to be 四世同堂 and we lived together (still does). so…..

    But different people have different ideas. it happen in older generations as well.

    大环境和个人的作用是互相的。Society can affect on people. But it can be reversed on the other way around.

    I didn’t heard of the doll experiment. but it’s interesting.

  15. @tin: Using Fredricton New Brunswick as an example is not the best. I am a white Canadian raised in the US who went to Uni in Sackville NB. I was stared at constantly. What you and I both experienced is small-town mentality. People in rural areas will stare at anyone who is “not from round here”. My Chinese wife gets stared at as well whenever we venture into the Chinese countryside. In most rural communities everyone knows everyone and outsiders are easy to spot regardless of race.

    Also, I disagree about Asians being ignored in the West as I believe it goes both ways. In my experiences, I’ve found Asian communities hold onto immigrant traditions that most others let go of years ago. For better or worse it seems that Asian communities are less likely to “assimilate” into Western societies. In Uni and boarding school, I had friends from all walks of life from every place on the planet, except Asia. The Asian communities on campus were difficult to penetrate and I found that my only Asian friend was a Japanese guy who just happened to be a friend’s roommate. That being said…..This has allowed Asian immigrants to retain a cultural identity that my Polish and German ancestors lost years ago in the West.

    @all who mentioned International Schools: I went to boarding school so I can only imagine that sense of entitlement multiplied ten-fold by living in a foreign country. The very idea of sending my “mixed-blood” kid to that type of environment sends shivers down my spine.

  16. Had an interesting experience last night with a group of over 70 Chinese Canadians. There were people who were born and raised in Vancouver and people who had moved over in the last couple years, Chinese Canadians with bad English and Chinese Canadians with had virtually no Mandarin. One guy at my table was talking about the different kinds of Chinese churches in Vancouver, and how depending on the mix of people they’ll use only English or Mandarin or Cantonese, or a mix of English and Chinese, and which kind different kinds of Chinese Canadians tended to prefer. And around our table were two or three generations (age wise), and they laughed about how they didn’t like eating Chinese food all the time and after while really wanted a salad. It was weird for us a little because this banquet was organized by Chinese and at a Chinese restaurant, but it was Western food and there wasn’t a chopstick in sight.

    @Soon to be
    I have a handful of friends who were sent to boarding schools, and none of them would dream of sending their own kids to one. I don’t know if most boarding school graduates feel that way, but they sure do.

  17. @Soon to be,

    What you said is true.

    However, i was wondering if are a Black or Asian born in Canada, raised in US, and went to Uni in Sackville NB. Maybe you will get more attention.

    About second one, is really big topic and can’t be done in one or two sentence. However, an chinese born in China and go to western city like Paris or London and a Laowai born in western country go to Beijing or Shanghai. Their will get different treatment.

    In my experiences, the majority Laowai in China didn’t fit into chinese society as well(i meanas daily life). and they didn’t let go their lifestyle too.

    A korean or japanese can fit into chinese society easier than westerners, because we share a similar culture.

  18. tin:

    the way I heard it, Koreans, Japanese, and whites are still 外国人, but only whites are 老外。 Is that correct? Also, what about Indians, Africans, and African Americans? Can they be 外国人 or 老外,or do they have to have their own special term?

  19. @tin: I’m a White guy, One of my buddies (white guy) had the cops called on him in a neighborhood in Cape Breton because he was “one of those long-haired types”. Regardless of race, an outsider in a rural community attracts more attention. Probably more if you are a different color, of course, but NOBODY calls the cops on an Asian kid walking around.

    Especially in this day and age, Paris, London, Beijing, and Shanghai, are all international and modern cities where most people don’t give anyone a second glance. The days of special treatment for foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai died decades ago. I agree with your statement if we are talking about an area in rural China, or one of the lesser cities. But that special treatment is not what most Chinese think. My wife used to tell me how good I had it in China and how wonderful it was that I was a white guy living in China. I had her spend a whole day with me and she had 3 comments.
    1. Stop learning Chinese, you don’t want to hear what everyone is saying about you.
    2. From now on I’ll buy everything for you because everyone tries to rip you off.
    3. Does it make you crazy that a lot of people shout “heeellllllloooo” and “LAOWAI” whenever they see you?

    Now, I pointed out to her that these things are not the norm and everyday in China people look at my being here as more and more normal. But she had some strange idea that the heavens opened and angels laid flowers at my feet anywhere I went in China.

    I lived here for 8 years and would change nothing about it and regret nothing about living in China. The majority of Chinese people have been wonderful to me and I value their insight and friendships. But, living here as a foreigner, especially outside the major cities, BJ, SH, GZ, ect. presents different challenges than she imagined.

    Lastly, I find (and this is changing everyday as well) Chinese people to be more dismissive of me and my ability to enter or become a part of Chinese society. Example: Last week my wife’s cousin got married. At the wedding I was talking to a table of her aunts and uncles for about 10 minutes in Chinese. One of the Aunts looked at my wife and said “Too bad your husband doesn’t understand what we are saying because he is a foreigner”, My father-in-law then exploded and said “He’s been talking to you for the last 10 minutes you moron!”
    I do not hold my wife’s aunt at fault here as I find the prevailing attitude amongst a lot of Chinese is that the foreigner can never understand, will never understand, and therefor, there is no point. Whereas, in most Western countries, you are expected to understand, thereby forced to assimilate. Neither of these being very positive. Which is why I said earlier, that I am always impressed that Asian communities retain a cultural identity long after my ancestors lost theirs.

    And lastly, YES, too many foreigners restrict themselves to their own “bubble” and make no attempts to assimilate themselves. This also makes me crazy. I have a friend who has been here 10 years (white guy) and he can barely order food in a restaurant. That is embarrassing.

  20. @Joel:

    In my personal opinion, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Africans they are 外国人. But normally, I call them, 韩国人,日本人,印度人,黑人。Laowai normally means 白人。但是现在有时候也扩展到黑人了。 And we do have special terms for some of the forigners.

    @Soon to be:
    I wouldn’t say the special treatment in Beijing and Shanghai died decades ago. But it disappears day by day.

    “But she had some strange idea that the heavens opened and angels laid flowers at my feet anywhere I went in China.

    I think maybe she is talking about the plenty of attention you get from Chinese people. Although she had 3 comments for you, she might think overall it is good experience.

    I find it is diffcult to enter or become a part of western society as well.

    It’s a little disrespectful that they are not talking in English when you are around. That will change as well,but maybe the Anuts don’t speak very good english.

    I see what you mean. Asian communities retain a cultural indentity in Western country. However, in my personal opinions, western commnunities in China ratain their culture indentity as well. Maybe the gap between eastern and western culture are huge and when entering a brand new brand new cultural environment. They are self-protective when it’s changelling to speak, act, and think like locals. Therefore, they rather like to stay in their comfort zone.

  21. tin: I see no disrespect in them not speaking English as I have always felt that as a guest in another country you must adhere to their culture and their rules. Hence, learn the language or just holiday there. I would actually be a bit disappointed if everyone in China spoke English to me. Granted in heavy tourist areas this is expected, but I don’t want the person in the veggie market to speak English to me. That takes all the fun out of living in another country.

    I always felt that people (wherever they are from) want a new experience but not too new. They want to see the world……as long as it seems a lot like their hometown. And you are right, people love their comfort zones. In my experience, I have found people from smaller countries to be less like this and those from big countries to be more so.

    And, in your defense, at least in Canada and the US, making friends is not easy. It takes time, patience, and a lot of participation in activities. Once people see you share a common interest or activity they warm up to you. It still takes a long time though, even for a white guy.

  22. @soon to be:

    I’m glad to see you being very positive in China. It’s nice.

    My way of making friends in UK is 随缘。不主动也不拒绝。
    Maybe it is a little bit negative.

    By the way, are you able to speak and read in chinese properly?

  23. @ Soon to be

    I would say that Asian communities retain their cultural identity for 2 reasons:

    1. The big reason is that the majority of Asian immigrants are still first generation immigrants. So there’s an influx of new people who still know the culture.

    2. Despite trying to assimilate, Asians are still somewhat considered perpetual foreigners.

    Especially in America where there’s a legacy of systematic government discrimination such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, and anti-miscegenation laws.

    Of course a lot of that is in the past but even in the mid-80s, when Japan was seen as a threat there were very strong anti-Asian sentiments (like the Vincent Chin case).

    I’ve also personally known Asian friends who’ve moved into predominately white neighborhoods only to have received death threats to move out (again, this was in the 80s, I haven’t heard any of that now).

    Also, anti-Asian sentiment seems to spark up every now and then. Such as the Wen Ho Lee case and the American spy plane incident.

    However, from what I’ve observed, 2nd and 3rd generation Asians are starting to assimilate at a much faster rate.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    @ Joel

    That’s what’s I’ve been told.

    外国人 typically refers to all non-Chinese. So Koreans, Japanese, Indians, etc. are all considered 外国人.


    I have recently seen some Chinese news sites that also refer to overseas Chinese (i.e. Chinese people who grew up elsewhere) referred to as 外国人 as well!

    So I think that term is evolving and changing.

    (I know there’s the Chinese term華僑 that is supposed to mean overseas Chinese, that’s why I was surprised they used 外国人 instead.)

    And from what I’ve heard, the word 老外 refers to white people, just like how 老中 refers to Chinese people. Black people are sometimes called 老黑. And there are terms for Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and other groups as well.

    There’s even a slang for Chinese people from Taiwan.

  24. Soon-to-be,
    Your wife’s comments after spending the day with you (in #21) are hilarious, though maybe they didn’t feel that way at the time.

    I’ve noticed — maybe you have, too — that foreigners are often conflicted about how they’re treated in China. On one hand we love the special treatment/privileges we get and feeling special, but on the other hand we have days where we’re sick of feeling different, excluded, and just want to fit in and be ‘normal.’ So we end up complaining about being treated differently, but if people in public treat us the way Chinese people treat each other in public, we feel offended. Haha, so hard to please.

    Yeah, please keep using Chinese. I can read most of what you’re writing, and I can use online dictionaries for the parts I can’t read. Good practice for me!

  25. @JJ: The only real discrimination towards Asians I saw was in Vancouver Canada. Some of the locals called it “Hongcouver”. Also, most of the annoyances there involved Chinese people and driving. Which I hate to say I can understand. It took the West 50 odd years to develop a “civilized” car-culture, so I can’t be too harsh on the Chinese as they have only had 5-20 years (depending on which part of China). This weekend I had a Chinese friend driving me home on a Shaanxi highway doing 190+km/h in a Honda Accord. Not the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had.

    @tin: “properly” no, functional, yes. I’ve grown lazy in my language learning.

    @Joel: I guess that was my point, My wife had only seen the good side, I like to call it “Pulling out the Laowai Card”. It was eye-opening for her to see the other side. And you are right about the conflict, although I think after a certain point you just take it as day-to-day normality and move on. As to your final comment, there’s a Canadian comedian named Russel Peters who was joking about the people of India being racist and his comment was something to the effect of…”We are too busy hating each other to be racist towards anyone else”. I find this to be true of China as well. Every time someone in Shannxi treats me terribly I just feel thankful I’m not a Chinese dude from Henan. Then I would truly know what it’s like to have someone in Xi’an hating on me.

  26. Speaking as a Vancouverite myself, I wouldn’t say “Hongcouver” is racist – the original waves of immigrants to Vancouver were from Hong Kong, and there are tons of them. The few odd times I’ve said it there were no derogatory or stereotyping aspect to it.

    And don’t forget the other Vancouver Chinese jokes:

    • UBC, the “University of Brilliant Chinese”
    • “Fastest way to get from India to China: the Alex Fraser bridge,” which connects North Delta (40% Indian) and Richmond (45% Chinese, 9% Canadian) over the Fraser River in greater Vancouver.
    • “Chinese driver, no survivor”

    I suppose the last one could be racist, but we learned it from a Chinese student that said it to my mom.

    Just because a term refers to race, or just because members of the race in question don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s racist. For example, just because a laowai doesn’t like being called laowai doesn’t necessarily mean “laowai” is racist.

  27. You guys are forgetting one very important thing – there isn’t such a thing as legal immigration to China. You can’t move to China and become a Chinese citizen.

    As I understand it, in mainland China the closest you can come to immigrating is marrying a Chinese person and having a spousal visa, which allows you to reside (but not necessarily work) in the country.

    In fact, there were people who had Chinese spouses, had resided in China for years, were raising children there and yet during the Olympics were faced with the prospect of having to leave their family in China and go back to the their home country for an extended (some feared indefinite) period of time. It was a mess.

    The issue then is why bother to learn the language and integrate with the culture when 1.) you can never get citizenship 2.) your right to stay in the country could be revoked literally at any given moment 3.) unless you have Asian physiognomy you are instantly recognizable as an outsider 4.) there really isn’t a culture of immigration anyways.

  28. I’ve heard the same as you described. Though I have also read about the Chinese equivalent of a U.S. “Green Card” — apparenty rarely given out, and of course still not full immigration status. Definitely not something to count on or plan for.

    Even if for whatever reason we had to leave, I can think of lots of places and lots of ways in which speaking Mandarin would be useful and still worthwhile.

    (Just to be extra clear: ‘Chinese immigrants’ in the title refers to Chinese living in Western countries, not Westerners becoming legal immigrants in China.)

  29. @chriswaugh_bj
    Really? How? I’ve been wondering about that for some time. I intend to continue learning and speaking Mandarin long after I move back to New Zealand…but it would be nice to know that the system here can be as (legally) inclusive to immigrants as the system back at home in western countries is.
    I have only been in China for a few months, but I already relate strongly to the two-pronged experience of being a white foreigner in China – the special privilege on one hand, and exclusion on the other. Of course, if I had learned the language *before* coming here I might be more included..

  30. This is a very interesting post and a very interesting website.

    I am from Singapore, grew up there, descendents of grandparents from Southern China, speak/write English & Mandarin fluently. I am working in Vancouver right now and see more Mainland chinese than ever migrating here. Common problems I’ve heard are the kids who’s grown up here, not able to speak Mandarin (only words here and there), much less read and write. Could it be that because their environment is constantly in English (school, teach methods, tv shows, road signs etc) that they are simply not interested in Mandarin?

    Does anyone know if this is the same for the Korean, Punjabs, Japanese, Vietnamese who migrated to Vancouver?

  31. @Ben Smith: Sorry for the late reply. The laws are in place, and there have been foreigners granted citizenship, but just ‘cos the laws are there doesn’t mean any of us will get citizenship. Nevertheless, it is, in theory, possible, and there have been foreigners granted Chinese citizenship.

  32. Please correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that China does not allow dual citizenships. To get Chinese citizenship, you need to give up your old citizenship.

    I think you’d have to be at the far end of “gone native” to want to do that!

    BTW, a follow-up to my earlier comment of a few months ago. Speaking as a foreign parent in China, there are some tough decisions to be made regarding the amount of integration and the way it is handled. There are no easy answers, as one’s children are always going to be straddling two (or more) cultures, and having the consequent “fitting in” stresses.

    My current thinking is that both local schools and international schools have more disadvantages than advantages. Currently, I am in the process of setting up a private playgroup/kindergarten with several other families (all local Chinese). We aim to pool our resources/talents, and team-teach our children. (I’ve just started a bi-lingual blog, detailing my child-raising-in-China experiences — link above, hopefully.)

    A (tough) comment about the problem of children not being fluent in the language of a parent or grandparent. You have got to do the hard work and talk to the child, when she/he is in that developmental stage of language learning. If, when the child is older, the child replies to you in a different language, then it is your own fault for not doing enough of the baby duties earlier. You reap what you sow! If a child is at daycare/school all day every day, then a parent/grandparent shouldn’t be surprised if the child speaks/acts/thinks totally differently from them.

  33. Hi William,

    Since your children are 12 and 14, my suggestion to you would be to homeschool them while sending them to a language center that specializes in teaching Chinese to foreigners. I suggest this because I think it would be very difficult for your 12 and 14 year old, having never learned Chinese, to be “immersed” into a public school setting. The language would be so far above their heads that it might even be counterproductive to their goal of learning the language. Especially with a plan to only stay two years in China. On the other hand, the language school we attended (or one like it), would (I think) be a great option. In two years, especially with their background in learning other languages, they would be able to progress quite quickly.

    I would also recommend moving to a city that is a friendly environment for language learning…like Tianjin. Larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai are not only more expensive (both in terms of language school cost and daily living), but people tend to view foreigners as tourists that are just passing through. In Tianjin, people are (while used to seeing the occasional foreigner) still curious and friendly and talkative. It’s the kind of place where you can quite easily get to know the people in your neighborhood…giving lots of chances for language practice.:)

    That’s my 2 kuai worth, anyway. :)

  34. Pardon me if I am out of line. I think you all are at a much higher intellectual level than I but I am going to China next month and desperately need advice on a personal level.
    My wife and three children would like to move to China in January for two years. The children want to learn the Chinese language and culture. What does it take to enroll children in public schools? I am retired (62) and my wife speaks Spanish. I understand it is difficult to get a Z visa if you are over 60.
    We have been living in Japan for the last six years and the children, who were born in Guatemala, have gone to Japanese public school the entire time we have been here. They speak English, Spanish and Japanese well enough.
    The experience of putting the kids in a school where neither of us knew the language was horrible. Prejudice is incredible and the children have had many obstacles to overcome. Yet I think, after a short visit to China a year ago, that it may be harder in China than it was in Japan.
    Could anyone comment and advise please? I need to know how to immerse them and at the same time protect them from my imaginary (?) fears.

    1. That’s a good question… wish I had a good answer for you. Our daughter is too young for school so we haven’t started tackling the education-in-China issue. I can only tell you what I’ve heard from other parents. You can try contacting some friends of ours at their blogs who tried putting their kids in the public and private systems in Tianjin: Tim & Helen, and Cindy & Jason. Looks like Tim’s & Helen’s blog is having trouble at the moment. They also might be able to refer you to other families who have more experience.

      I’ve heard of foreign parents putting their kids in public schools in Taiwan and Japan. But aside from kindergarten and primary school, while one parent watched them like a hawk, I’ve not heard of foreign kids going through the education system in Mainland China. It seems to be the assumption that aside from language acquisition, there’s no benefit and many detriments to the Chinese education system.

      I’ve also heard that the prejudice is greater in Mainland China, that kids will feel even more like outsiders, but I don’t know if that’s true.

  35. My children (at least the 12 and 14 year old) asked me to take them to China to learn the language. I will try to home school them in math and English, God forbid , eh?

    I will contact your friends to see if they can give me advice on visas and enrolling them in school.

    Thank you for your kind response.

  36. A few cross-cultural families living in China might have a situation of never learning English properly. I know two examples of near-misses, my own and another. We had always spoken exclusively Cantonese at home, switching to Mandarin when we wanted to talk to friends that didn’t speak Cantonese (I’m an American white guy, wife is from Hong Kong, we live in China). When our son was born, I made the effort to speak English to him (3yo now) and he’s learning, albeit not as fast as Cantonese. The other person I know never taught his kids English at all (a white couple, living in Hong Kong), speaking only in Cantonese to them. His kids had to learn English from watching TV.

  37. The difference in situation between a Laowai kid in China and a Chinese kid in North America:

    1. Chinese parents in NA usually work in the local language, and are comfortable in communicating with their children in the local language. Laowai parents in China may work in the local language, but mostly in English, or their native language.

    2. Chinese kids in NA can go to internationals schools (IB), or a local school teaching in the local language. It is very difficult to find accredited schools that teaches in Chinese. So the language in the playground is typically English, not Chinese. Laowai kids in China can go to international schools that teach in English. The language in the playground is English, unless the Laowai kid goes to a Chinese school with mostly Chinese students.

    3. Chinese kids in NA probably aiming at going to a NA college. Laowai kids in Chinese probably won’t plan on going to a Chinese college. So Chinese kids in NA will try to be good enough in English to handle college, while Laowai kids in Chinese probably won’t need to be good enough in Chinese to handle a Chinese university program

    4. Chinese kids in NA are getting ready for a working environment in English, while Laowai kids are getting ready in a working environment in English and Chinese.

  38. I agree with Bill. I think, with the parallel, we must consider the difference of the demand for each language, so part of the unbalance between both sides might be affected by the different demand of each language from a global perspective.

  39. Joel, Jessica,
    Just a quick follow-up.
    We have enrolled our three children in public schools in Beijing. They are very happy with their classes and classmates. Besides being content in school they seem to be learning the language quickly.
    My fears about the how they would be treated have vanished. We have so far found the Chinese people to be most helpful and friendly. Teachers have gone out of their way to help even offering to be a guardian (a requirement because I am on an L visa) for my eight year old son.

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