Imagine getting off the plane and arriving in China to find yourself engulfed in a sea of black hair. The people would stare at you and point like you were some strange anomaly; a wild animal that has escaped from the zoo. You’d be an easy target, so don’t bother breaking the law, lest you desire being found within ten seconds of committing the crime.
Chinese people have a wide range of responses to foreigners: curiosity, excitement, fear, and disgust are just a few. I have experienced all of these, and even several times made grown-ups cry and run away in the opposite direction. I’m not joking.
At first, these responses to your presence are humorous, as they seem irrational, but later you come to understand it’s just curiosity. Despite knowing this, it can slowly grate on your nerves. To them, you are one foreigner, something shiny and new. To you, a billion people find you odd and want to prod you. It happens every day for as long as you live there, and it will never stop.
The excited Chinese are the best because they are interested in talking with you and understanding the outside world. Many Chinese who can’t speak English are still excited by your presence, and so it’s best to learn Chinese so you can speak with the majority of the population, however most expats just get involved with English-speaking Chinese and have them translate.
Fear and disgust are just completely irrational responses in our minds, but it’s wise to understand their recent history before you judge them. They have been oppressed for eight of the last eleven decades, and had to fight off Nationalists, then the Japanese, then themselves. They have been “opened up to the world” for the last 40 years, but they have many more decades to go before we are just “normal” to them. And that’s OK!
There are two ways to deal with these reactions while living in China. The first way is by being nonchalant. Why should one be bothered by the curiosity of strangers? In fact, with nonchalance you can even leverage yourself to create great friendships and at the same time bridge the cultural gap and de-mystify the “foreigner.” Those who fear you can be slowly turned into a great friend by approaching them slowly and showing them there is nothing to be afraid of, but good luck getting close enough to touch them! Those who disgust you are a lot further off and should be ignored.
The second way to cope is that of greater resistance, and one I despise. The expats who decided to say something back are the worst ones because they have no sense of compassion. They might scream, yell, act like an animal, or comment on the Chinese person’s behavior, and overall be rude. This only furthers their negative feelings for us, and makes bridging gaps more difficult.
Overall, living in another culture is hard no matter how much you want to going into it. It takes roughly 6 months to become comfortable with your surroundings there, and that’s okay even though it might be a very difficult time and you might want to go home. But you deal, and you do it because you made the decision to move. You are a representative of your country, your government, and your culture, and it behooves you to create understanding, instead of fostering contempt. So don’t worry about the negative responses you get as a foreign citizen in a new place, embrace it and your assimilation will become easier!