Stranger from a Strange Land: Life as a Foreigner in China

My take on life as a foreigner in China. (Spoiler alert: it comes with a lot of being stared at)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

To my knowledge, as I’m typing this, I am one of two wai guo ren in Cili, a town of about 400,000. The last time I was in Zhangjiajie in 2014, I hardly saw any foreigners, so for all I know, I could be the first foreigner some of the people in Cili have ever seen. It makes getting around town very interesting.

Let me just clear up one thing first: even though the term wai guo ren means “foreigner” (“person from outside the country”), it’s (usually) not used in a negative context like English speakers usually use the term. (I’ve also overheard some people near the school calling me “wai jiao“, or “foreign teacher”, so I imagine most people assume I’m there to teach English.) When I was studying abroad in Beijing, I sometimes heard lao wai (literally, “old-outside [the country]”), but that hasn’t been as commonly heard in Changsha and Cili. It could be because Beijing had more foreigners out and about, even in areas outside of the tourist areas like Sanlitun and the area near the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen, but that’s just speculation on my part.

As someone who doesn’t like being stared at, it’s a leap of faith for me to be in Cili. I have to admit, sometimes I feel like Christina Ricci in the movie Penelope, wanting to hide myself whenever I go out and about, since I’m going to stand out no matter how hard I try otherwise. If nothing else, it reminds me to put on a bit of makeup and put a bit of thought into what I’m wearing; in my mind, they’re going to stare at me, so I might as well make it worth their time. I’m concerned, though, that one day, I might cause a traffic accident because someone was staring at me. That would be embarrassing beyond belief.


I’d like to think I’m being a good guest in China. Interestingly, though, when it comes to how I come across to people, there appears to be some criteria for “how to detect an American wai guo ren” that I am not fulfilling. When I was in Zhangjiajie, I overheard people wondering out loud if I was French, Canadian, English, or Russian—never American. I never determined the logic behind their assessments, and to be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable asking. Either way, Cili is no exception; when I was getting my haircut this past week, the guy cutting my hair casually asked me if I was from Russia. Memories of standing on a Beijing subway platform and being asked the same question at random came flooding back. It’s almost incomprehensible for them that I could be American, and I’ve yet to figure out exactly why.

On a similar note to appearances, I’ve been told “You’re so beautiful!” as if that’s as common for them to say as it is for us Americans to talk about the weather during small talk. Part of me wonders if it’s because I, as a porcelain-skinned woman, fit an ideal beauty standard for China (it’s still considered beautiful for a Chinese woman to be fair-skinned). Another part of me wonders if it’s merely because I’m a wai guo ren—different, and therefore something of “exotic”. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

One minor annoyance is when people see me in stores and follow me around, whether or not they’re staff or fellow patrons. I imagine they either A) assume I don’t speak or read Chinese and hope to help, or B) are merely curious as to what I’m choosing, so I can’t be too upset about it, but it’s definitely something to have everyone stare at you (and/or take pictures of you; they’re not always sneaky about it, and I’m not sure how I feel about that either) when you’re trying to buy toilet paper or laundry detergent. I imagine this is close to how celebrities feel when they’re out and about.

I don’t let it get me down, though, because I imagine I would have to deal with it no matter where I went in China. If nothing else, it reminds me that I’m a guest here, and not to get too in over my head. I’m representing not only the United States, but also the rest of the world, in a sense, to these people, so I hope I’m doing a good job.

My first week of classes went well here in Cili, and I feel like I’m getting on my feet with teaching, slowly but surely. I’m expecting a week-long vacation coming up in October, and I’m hoping I can have some exciting articles about my travels! In any case, I’m hoping that I can be back later this week with another post! See you then! Zai jian!


One thought on “Stranger from a Strange Land: Life as a Foreigner in China”

  1. This is precisely the sort of information on your adventure I was hoping for….insight of your life there, how you are experiencing it and your reactions and thoughts. Wonderful! Thank you!


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