The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto

Aside from personal motivations, character, attitude, and general posture toward China and Chinese people, this is the one decision that enhanced our China experience more than any other single thing we did during our first two years in China: we moved out of the foreigner ghetto and into the most average-looking Chinese neighbourhood we could find.

(If what follows starts to sound culturally patronizing, just hold on… I saved that part for the end.)

Welcome to China! the Foreign Bubble

When we first arrived in China with next-to-no Mandarin or knowledge of our city, the organization that helped arrange our visas and school placement also arranged our apartment: we had a prearranged flat in a complex occupied entirely by foreigners where the manager had good English (back in the day this was the only place foreigners were allowed to live in Tianjin). It was super convenient, especially for China newbies who are usually high-maintenance. From the standpoint of an organization facilitating foreigners’ language school placement it was ideal. But for foreigners interested in China and Chinese, it sucked.

Ditching the Laowai Ghetto: hunting apartments armed with Chinglish

We’d come to China to study language and culture, and we’d decided before we even arrived that we’d be moving out of “洋人街” ASAP. It was inconvenient for language practice, and besides, going to a foreign country and living unnecessarily isolated from your new city’s regular people seemed really lame. So after about two months of classes we took a vocabulary list of apartment words, a map, and went and squinted at the scrawled 汉字 on the papers tacked to boards outside the little first-floor rental agencies tucked away in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

We knew what we wanted: an average neighbourhood (“average” as defined by locals, not foreigners) with a lot of outdoor community life and an apartment we could tolerate and that our neighbours, teachers, and local friends wouldn’t feel strange in. Surely, we thought, that isn’t too much to ask. Foreigners from one of the international schools told us we wouldn’t find “anything” (read: “livable”) for twice the price of what we eventually paid (also twice the price of what they said was the average Tianjin salary). We went with what our teachers told us instead, quickly realizing that foreigners can spend years in China and still know next-to-nothing about it.

Of course it was awkward pointing at a circle on a map and mispronouncing vocab words to rental agents who had maybe never talked face-to-face with a foreigner in their lives, but we managed to have three apartments shown to us. I wanted the first one, but the landlord balked when he discovered we were foreigners (that’s when we learned what “他有事” really means). The third location was perfect — better than we’d hoped. We incurred some 关系 debt because we had to ask a local friend (the boyfriend of a fellow foreigner) for a big favour to come with us to the contract negotiation and signing. It went smoothly, so we borrowed an electric 三轮车 and moved in.

The Benefits: people, people, people

Rather than bring local Tianjiners into our cultural space, we wanted to meet them in their own world where they were more comfortable. The single biggest benefit that living in this kind of neighbourhood gave us was exponentially increasing our daily opportunities for interaction with average, mainstream locals more on their turf than ours. We couldn’t come or go without speaking to someone, and usually more than one. The old boys club that hung out on the bike repair corner regularly included me in their Chinese chess, outdoor meals, and teasing. Families would invite us into their homes on the various big holidays. The only person we met in that neighbourhood in two years who had any amount of English — besides one charming but mentally handicapped man who would yell “I love you!” at us — was a university student three floors down who became a language exchange partner. It was a laid back but crowded, active community where language practice opportunities with everyone from laid-off factory workers to university professors were immediately available in excess of what we could handle. Those neighbours taught us more about China and made China more interesting, alive, and lovable to us than any books or classes ever could. Even on the worst days, we never regretted our decision to live there.

A few months after moving in our teachers, in their more candid moments, would sometimes confess that they felt extra awkward and distanced when visiting their foreign friends’ apartments for two big reasons. First, the furniture, decor, food, and even the way they were received as guests all felt foreign. Second, although the foreigners were taking a step down in living standards, to the Chinese their apartments just screamed wealth and economic privilege. In addition to the unavoidable language and cultural barriers, these foreigners, through their lifestyle choices, were emphasizing another gulf of distance between themselves and local Chinese: economic disparity.

The Downside: our economic elitism

The economic privilege in which most of us were raised (speaking globally here) gets us in two big ways. The first is largely practical, physical, external. The second is intensely personal.

Physical Annoyances & Inconveniences
My mother would be appalled if she saw that apartment. The whitewash was peeling and rubbed off on your clothes. The kitchen was the size of a closet. The toilet was in the shower and the exposed plumbing both precarious and temperamental. The sewer gas that came up the drains in the evenings smelled so bad it woke us up at night until we devised an overly complicated water-bottle-in-a-plastic-bag-hung-from-a-nail method for mostly-sealing the bathroom drain (plumbers don’t do U-bends in Tianjin). The windows let all the coal dust in and the layout of the place didn’t make sense to us. The electricity often shorted out and we had long extension cords running everywhere. There was only enough hot water in the winter for fast showers. I wore a toque to bed the week before they turned on the heat. In the words of younger versions of my little sisters: it was totally ghetto. But we would choose to live there again, no question. It was totally worth it. That apartment was slightly better or slightly worse than those of our neighbours, depending on the neighbours, and close enough to what they knew that our Chinese friends and neighbours felt much less awkward when they visited than they might have otherwise. I mention these things to give fair warning: if you aim to move into an average Chinese neighbourhood chances are you’ll be getting an average Chinese apartment. Count the cost, because not all foreigners are willing to pay it. Also, the neighbourhood and apartment described here, while unremarkable for that district of Tianjin, is still probably well above average for most places in China.

Uncomfortable Personal Discoveries
(Warning: confession/soap box/rant/sermon ahead.)
Whether it’s right or not, what’s a huge step down in living standards for the average foreigner is normal for the average Mainlander. If that embarrassing, awkward and unfair economic truth makes you feel uncomfortable and maybe even vaguely guilty, I promise I know how you feel, but I don’t apologize for bringing it up. That’s what we get for being the economically elite six percent of an otherwise much-less-privileged world. Keeping the hoi polloi at a distance so that we’re less poignantly reminded of this stark economic reality and our consciences are less likely to be called out does not make it any less real — but living in an average urban Chinese neighbourhood makes it harder to avoid.

If you’re a thinking, reflective person at all then living significantly below the comforts you’re accustomed to brings special challenges. Basically, you begin to discover how much of a pampered, manicured, whiny, elitist snob you are who has tragically confused unwarranted privileges with basic entitlements. When you get genuinely frustrated and upset about how sub-standard everything is, then you can enjoy the guilt that comes with realizing that you can’t handle what’s more than good enough for most of the world; for thinking that living more like the majority of the world is such a big sacrifice for which you should get some sort of multiculturalism medal. And when you’re in a good mood and those physical inconveniences aren’t annoying you as much as they would the average foreigner, then you can hate yourself for actually feeling proud of the fact that you deigned to lower your living standard closer to that of the global average, for thinking you’re better than all those other foreigners, and — last but certainly not least — for being so patronizing to the local Chinese.

The silver lining, I guess, is that living this way also creates ample opportunity to contemplate lifestyles that respectfully transcend economic divisions while still being honest about who we are and acting morally with our affluence given the economic disparity in the world… Anyway, that’s a big tangent I maybe should have saved for another post, but it’s part of our experience, so I’m leaving it in.

Gearing up for Location #2

That old apartment with its neighbourhood comes to mind today because right at the moment friends in Tianjin are securing an apartment for us for when we arrive in a couple weeks (we had to let the old one go when we left for Canada). When friends are doing us this huge favour we obviously don’t want to be picky, and with the baby we won’t be as mobile or tolerant/flexible as we were before. I’m also only on a year-long contract, so I don’t know how likely we’ll be to move after we arrive. The photos they sent make this second apartment look several notches above the first. I guess we’ll see…

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17 thoughts on “The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto”

  1. Excellent article. I agree wholeheartedly with everything stated. There are definitely various levels of *living* in a foreign country, and the depth of one’s experience certainly increase when you get away from the ghetto. Same works here in Chicago, one of the world’s most ghettoized cities. I have Chinese friends here who never leave Chinatown or their university campus. I also have Chinese friends who live in trendy neighborhoods, explore the Chicago food scene, and take trips with their American friends to visit their families in small rural towns in Iowa. The disparity in the respective groups understanding of American culture (and their English abilities as well usually) is enormous.

  2. Great article. I had a technical question: how do you get some of the 汉字 to display pinyin and the definition on the rollover?

  3. Thanks.

    If you’re gonna do a mouseover thing, I’d check out what John at Sinosplice has going on. He helped me set up what I’m using here a couple years ago, but he’s since moved on to bigger and better things (example).

    To do what you see here, put this in you CSS:

    span.info { border-bottom:2px dotted #00AAFF; cursor: default; }

    and then type tags around the 汉字 like so:

    (span class=”info” title=”pīnyīn”)汉字(/span)

    Rather tedious.

    There used to be a button that would automatically paste the span tags (like for bold and italics tags), but that stopped working long ago during a wordpress upgrade. There may have been a file from John that I uploaded — it was a while ago and I honestly don’t remember. This theme is over four years old and I’m too scared and lazy to change it.

    If John tells how to do what he’s doing, come back here and fill me in!

  4. “Basically, you begin to discover how much of a pampered, manicured, whiny, elitist snob you are who has tragically confused unwarranted privileges with basic entitlements. When you get genuinely frustrated and upset about how sub-standard everything is, then you can enjoy the guilt that comes with realizing that you can’t handle what’s more than good enough for most of the world; for thinking that living more like the majority of the world is such a big sacrifice for which you should get some sort of multiculturalism medal. And when you’re in a good mood and those physical inconveniences aren’t annoying you as much as they would the average foreigner, then you can hate yourself for actually feeling proud of the fact that you deigned to lower your living standard closer to that of the global average, for thinking you’re better than all those other foreigners, and — last but certainly not least — for being so patronizing to the local Chinese.”

    says it all

  5. Well, I don’t think it says it all. Just because slightly-better-culturally-adjusted foreigners sometimes seem to have a superior attitude about it doesn’t mean they’re wrong; they have made a better choice compared to laowai who live in a foreign culture bubble, they’re just maybe being a little obnoxious about it. OR other laowais don’t like what the so-called “culture snob” laowais are doing because living out in the local community implicitly challenges/criticizes the laowai status quo, and that poo-poos on too many people’s comfort zones and sparks resentment.

    I still think ditching the laowai ghetto is usually the better choice (it depends, of course, on your goals for life in China), but it also helps to remember that living a relatively more locally-appropriate lifestyle (the bar is set quite low among laowai in China) doesn’t automatically turn you into the patron saint of multiculturalism. I wrote the bit you quoted to show that, although living more in the community is a big, worthwhile step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go.

    Besides, if I had to choose between feeling superior because I was living more appropriate to the local culture, and feeling superior because I live in a laowai ghetto but don’t feel superior like those culture snob laowais… ;)

  6. Glenn & Jane – thanks for the interesting feedback, as always.

    Character of the neighbourhood
    By loading up all of our apartment’s negatives into one paragraph I must have accidentally made it sound a lot worse than it is — ha, I may have done my neighbours a disservice with this post! (Here’s the view from our windows.) It’s not as bad as your guys’ responses seem to reflect (my fault). For example, of the two families we most often visited: one couple were retired factory workers living in their danwei apartment whose son and his wife owned a small but successful chain of diy bake shops; the the other family sent their son overseas for post-graduate engineering studies and the father is a professor. Several neighbours had children living overseas, and cars. The place was all danwei apartments built in the 80s, and at the time were apparently where everyone wanted to live. I think most Tianjiners would be put off by the suggestion that we were slumming it in what for most Tianjiners is a typical neighbourhood (though from a North American perspective that’s exactly what we were doing).

    When we were hunting for an “average neighbourhood” we were total newbies (2 or 3 months in), so to try an guesstimate average or median for Tianjin I used the rental price range as provided by my teachers and the NGO’s local office staff, the size/cost of the places our teachers’ families and staff lived in, what we saw in our district that looked like the majority housing with majority-looking people in it. Hardly scientific, but it worked good enough when combined with what we saw that we wanted: neighbourhoods that were alive with regular outdoor activity: pingpong, 毽子,chess, badminton, drinking, gossip, lunch, etc.; great outdoor community lifestyle.

    “Average Chinese…”
    I agree that “average Chinese neighbourhood” is such a slippery term that it’s almost meaningless. As we were told often during orientation: “There are many chinas.” If a person is going to use where they live to learn language and culture, then I think we’re doomed to be studying a subset, no matter what. That said, I think the vast majority of Mainlanders live at this level or lower, rather than higher. The Chinese most likely to interact with foreigners are generally well above average economically for China, though to us they look middle class (or lower middle class), and because they are the ones we interact with the most, they seem the most “normal.”

    I could echo almost all of what Jane described in Chengdu. There’s the rich Chinese, and they tend to live in the rich neighbourhoods next to all the 老外 and Koreans and Japanese. I’d put them in the minority, though of course no less Chinese.

    Economic disparity soapbox
    I could have organized that better; there are two partially distinct sets of issues there: the dynamics between the culture-happy foreigner and other other foreigners (snobby?), and the dynamics between the culture-happy foreigner and local Chinese (patronizing?). In both areas, you can discover things about yourself, like mixed motives, the limits of good intentions, and if you’re willing to make a substantial or just token sacrifices to hold to your principles — interesting you (Glenn) made the connection to “green” lifestyle attempts. Mostly with that little sermon I just wanted to raise the complicated issue of global economic disparity because it impacts the kind of lifestyle we attempted, and acknowledge that it’s hard to escape being economically/culturally patronizing 100% of the time.

    Re: personal motives — I have a hard time imagining someone “slumming it” for any significant amount of time if their only/primary motivation was their sense of global economic injustice; seems to me the novelty and feelings of self-righteousness would wear off pretty quick. I know people sort of doing that in the States, but no one overseas. Our primary motivation came from cross-cultural communication principles with an aim to expose ourselves to language and culture (we did M.A.’s in Intercultural Studies); I don’t think what we did is significantly meaningful re: economic disparity.

    woo, that was a long reply. If you’re still reading, you deserve a medal! ;)

  7. All right, you’re right; I was just being a lazy commenter. I guess Tianjin must be pretty different from Chengdu in terms of laowai ghettos … here we have neighborhoods with (relatively) high concentrations of foreigners, but not compounds that are purely foreigners, other than the one for the American Consulate employees and a few other select and exclusive areas. And I’ve usually tended more toward the side of being a snob for not living in a fancy flat, and I’ve got a handful of friends like that, but as we get older (you know, approaching 30), and some have been having health issues after five years here, a lot of them are wanting to go to the nicer places. And I have to say I can certainly empathize, and if I had the funds to upgrade, I would. A nice home certainly is comfortable. But–at least in Chengdu–nice flats are not limited to foreigner communities. Most of the locals I know who are young professionals live in far nicer places than I do. And my foreign friends who live in nice flats are usually surrounded by Chinese families, not foreign ones. Only students and the elderly, it seems, tend to live in these grubbier older places. I’m just depressed about housing in general recently, given the horror stories I’ve been hearing from my apartment-hunting friends about how much rent has increased in the last couple of years, and that I’ll be in the same boat in October.

  8. @ Joel,

    This is a “I-don’t-mean-to-be-picky-but…” post — hope you don’t mind :-) (I truly admire what you are doing, and enjoy reading about your experiences.)

    Firstly, I am wondering what an “average-looking Chinese neighbourhood” *actually* is.

    But from your photos and description I understand well what your neighbourhood must have been like, and what you intend by the phrase.

    So, secondly and more importantly, I wonder why you think that this type of neighbourhood would be better than any other type of local Chinese neighbourhood for learning Chinese (as you say, you were in China to study Chinese language and culture from a beginner level).

    I agree, of course, that this type of neighbourhood is far better than the foreigner areas for learning Chinese, and I think moving out makes perfect sense.

    But there are plenty of other all-Chinese neighbourhoods, where one could interact with the locals in an everyday way as you describe, and yet *also* have working electricity, heating, water, etc, etc. (Don’t forget, for example, about the *masses* of Ikea-loving middle-classers!)

    I personally feel that, if your purpose was to learn Chinese language and culture *in general* as a somewhat-newbie foreigner, you slummed it far more than was necessary. (But, if your purpose was to study more carefully that certain *subsection* of Chinese culture, then you were in the right place.)

    Your “sermon” section is a whole separate set of reasons for living as you did, unconnected with learning any culture/language. This might turn out to be closer to your *real* reasons for choosing the dwelling you did.

    I personally don’t feel any such guilt in this respect, but each to her/his own. (OTOH, I am an ethical vegetarian trying to downsize his carbon footprint. Your reflections partly fit with this sort of lifestyle, too!)

    I see Jane has written a comment as I write this. I think my thoughts parallel hers in many ways (except, oops, I am approaching 30 from the other direction!).

  9. Shannon,

    I don’t think you want to attempt this: we took a hot water bottle, put it in a grocery bag and tied the bag to a wire that hung on a nail about sink-level above the floor drain so we could raise it or lower it easily. It was better than nothing, but it didn’t always seal and was a pain to clean.

    Our neighbours were smarter; they just crammed plastic bags tight into the top of the drain pipe when they weren’t taking showers.

    Had more success in the kitchen where the drain pipe came out of the floor and I could make a u-bend for the kitchen sink. That made it so gas only came out of the bathroom. I think I remember Cindy saying even in their new apartment they had the gas problem. I noticed at Tim and Helen’s newer place the pipes vented onto their balcony, so you could only smell it out there.

  10. i don’t know–i think “slumming it” due to global injustice has been my MO for a while, starting in the states and continuing in china. it started with being a student and a bus rider in l.a. where “nobody” (except the voiceless million with no other choice) rides the bus because i didn’t have a car, and stemmed into, when i had the funds to drive (and probably get into debt), choosing not to partly to avoid the debt/cycle of climbing into a higher expense bracket but mostly because i felt like the whole bus/car disparity was unjust and i didn’t want to take part in the oppression/injustice if i could avoid it. with rent being what it is in l.a. i had no choice but to rent crappy apartments from slum landlords in fairly crappy neighborhoods. so working full-time (which coincided with my moving to china) was an upgrade, financially, and the first flat i lived in (arranged by my employer) was brand new and i thought very nice (although just outside was a loading dock for a massive vegetable market, and at night i would go to eat 3-kuai dumplings with the truckers under the overpass, for the eating more than for the socializing). but after that my flatmates decided it was too expensive and we moved into a ghetto-ass place that i was pretty much grossed out by but tolerated for a few months til i moved to chengdu. other than my first job here who again arranged a nice flat for me i’ve always chosen to live in a less expensive place, usually foregoing fridge, a.c., etc. to save money and because it just seems like a lot of those things are unnecessary. there have been a couple times when fresh-from-the-states young’uns who really like the word “sustainability” yet live in these grandiose flats have asked specifics about why i live the way i do, as if, while they tout all the empty words sustainability they cannot imagine putting them into practice. i live by a lot of the same issues environmentalists advocate (vegetarianism, public transportation/bikes, etc.) not because i feel that strongly about environmental protection but some greater sense that we privileged developed-nation types are just spoiled brats and need a reality check? something like that. and along the way i’ve managed to not climb into a financial situation where i can afford the niceties most westerners here do. but given the CHOICE between living in a modest but nice and clean and functional place and living in a shithole, how many people would choose the latter? also, the majority of chinese who live in places below the standard of your former flat would be people in rural areas, i guess. i think the cities of china (which, yes, are where the [albeit increasing] minority lives) have a relatively decent average standard of living. next issue to tackle for them is traffic. oh man.

  11. Jane (and Glenn),

    Re: personal motivations — seems I spoke too soon! Sorry. Probably because most of the people I see who talk like they care about economic injustice and environmental sustainability are like what you described:

    …fresh-from-the-states young’uns who really like the word “sustainability” yet live in these grandiose flats have asked specifics about why i live the way i do, as if, while they tout all the empty words sustainability they cannot imagine putting them into practice.

    If you’re without a/c and a fridge then you are far beyond what we were doing (and hope to do again).

    I use the phrase “slumming it” hesitantly here, and meant it only in the sense that from a North American perspective, that’s what it’d be called, not that that’s necessarily the most fair or accurate description of what we did, or what you’re doing. “Slumming it” carries with it connotations of being patronizing, and while that’s an element to be dealt with, I don’t think concerns about being patronizing should stop people from attempting what we or you have done.

    I would love 3-kuai dumpling with truckers under an overpass — for the food and the socializing. They just built one near our school and it quickly became a nighttime hotspot for games and exercise.

  12. Joel, thanks for the clarification. Maybe your depiction of peeling walls, faulty electricity and smelly toilets made me think the worst. (I’ve been in some places where I have (half?) jokingly said to my wife that I would commit suicide if I had to live there.)

    FWIW, let me explain my living situation, as a slightly more upmarket version of living locally in China.

    I live on my university campus (Zhongshan Daxue) — not in the student or foreigner sections but in the local staff area. My apartment is in a 10-year-old building, which means that it is architecturally basic but the wiring/plumbing is sound and internal. Our style is simple, and many of our local friends have much fancier accessories (eg, we don’t want or need a car, though several friends have been getting them; we also don’t have a TV). I almost never see foreigners in my daily life, and most of my friends are locals.

    Call me an academic snob (as opposed to a culture snob!), but I like the fact that I and my family can interact daily with some super-smart people. The thought of intentionally finding an average dwelling is a big turn-off. I want my daughter (and myself!) to be exposed to elites (academic, sporting, artistic, business), to give her the choice and access to be the best she can be. (I realise this is sometimes in tension with being “green”, and it is something of a balancing act.) (I also realise that elitism can be offensive to some.)

    An example of how I live: as you probably know, there are areas where caregivers and their babies congregate to give the babies some outdoor play. We got quite friendly with several of the other regulars. The other daddies don’t attend very often, so it was several months before I met the daddy of my daughter’s closest baby-friend. It turns out he is quite the star-academic, having been head-hunted from the US after 20-odd years study/work there. And happily, his subject is the same as mine. A bit of paperwork later (scholarship from Beijing), and he is now my PhD supervisor.

    Hmmm … maybe I am turning native with all this push for success. I still can’t see myself standing over my daughter ready to beat her if she stops learning her hanzi, though! :-)

    BTW, Joel, my wife (local Chinese) teaches a course on Intercultural Studies to grad students who are learning to teach Chinese to foreigners. If we ever get up to Tianjin (probably not in the near future) or you get down to Guangzhou it would be fun to meet up. (I’m sure my daughter, Mulan, would love to play with Lilia.)

  13. That’s great you don’t have to live in the foreign teacher dorm; it sounds like you’re really immersed. I wouldn’t want to pass up those educational opportunities either, but personally I’d still want to look for some creative ways to try and have a foot in more than one economic class. I would love to hear intercultural studies and East-West communication from a Chinese perspective! But I want to be able to hear it in Chinese, so give me a few years before we meet up. :) I’ve heard only one lecture like that so far; a teacher was relaying what some Chinese guy wrote in his book about it, and it was super interesting; I was in full-on geek mode.

    About the peeling walls: in Tianjin whenever people buy a not-new apartment they usually have the walls chiseled off and floor redone before moving in; it’s common to see the occasional pile of rubble and toilets outside an apartment stairwell. Our next-door neighbours did this and they were just a young couple with a baby. We didn’t because we were just renting for two years, so that’s why it was that shabby.

    The stinking drains, though – I think almost every apartment in TJ is that way to some degree, for sure even the new elite “Olympic City” complex built next to the new stadium (that sits largely unoccupied aside from a scattering of Koreans). They just don’t do u-bends in TJ – drives me nuts! ;) In our place they did have an inconvenient metal drain cap arrangement that was supposed to be sealed by a small moat of water, but it didn’t work, and our neighbours didn’t rely on it either. The smell really did wake us up the first two nights we lived there (before we realized what was happening).

  14. I was trying to figure out what you meant by ‘ghetto’… I see you just want to get away from other foreigners. Usually when I hear that word, I just think “dump” which is a bit confusing since, foreigners tend to do well here.

    Yeah, you may or may not want to get away from other foreigners because, they party alot, and they’re very young and loud. I just want to get away from the noise, and usually that means getting away from the locals (I’m in Shanghai). I just keep moving further away from the downtown core to get away from the traffic noise/blaring car horns, etc. As you start looking at bigger places that are more quiet and peaceful, you’ll pay more, but man is it worth it!

  15. Yeah, I’ve used “ghetto” in two different ways (see the link in #15), so it is a little confusing. “Laowai ghetto” is synonymous with “foreign bubble”; the idea being self-imposed cultural/societal isolation or marginalization, like in a regular ghetto. Obviously this use of the word doesn’t work if we’re talking economic living standards.

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