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Watch out, here comes a Laowai!

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In fact, “Watch out” is what I should be telling the Chinese people who can’t drag their stares away from me long enough to notice that the bicycle they are riding is about to collide directly with that tree.

True story.

Well, not the actual collision part.

Although…I didn’t turn back around to check.

Maybe he did…

Okay okay, there was no collision, but it was definitely a close call.

Laowai 老外 = foreigner.

Yes, us foreigners in Beijing cause heads to turn…and more often than not, they don’t turn back. (Unless you glare back 🙂 )

Just as I was walking back from class earlier, while waiting to cross the road, a taxi drove past, and the passenger shouted “HELLOOO!!” at me out of his open window. Honestly, why? It’s not as if he’s going to get any further than shouting ‘hello’ at me, considering his taxi is driving away from me. Does he expect a conversation to ensue, or something?? God knows.

Even worse are the motorbikes that drive on the pavement. There I am walking along, in nobody’s way at all, and a motorcyclist drives past – yes, on the pavement, sometimes there are cars too (the pavements are pretty wide) –  his head spinning round to follow me as we continue in opposite directions. Or if I’m REALLY lucky, the same direction. Walking alongside an engine-revving motorcyclist, charming.

A few weeks back, when the lift doors opened on my floor for me to get in, a little boy who was inside (around 6 or 7 years old, I guess) pointed at me and shouted: “Waiguoren! 外国人!(Foreigner!).
As if I need his help drawing more attention…
For the journey down however, his grandmother (I assume) who was with him, tried to encourage the boy to talk to me, and ask me where I was from. She was telling him that because I’m from a different country, I’m a ‘foreigner’ when I’m in China, and “isn’t that right?”. I don’t think the boy really got what she was trying to tell him though, he just looked up at me with this huge cheeky grin on his face, so I told him “And in my country, you’d be a foreigner then, right? :)”. He seemed to find this thought hilarious.

I’d take the little kid curious stares over the cyclists’ and drivers’ unflinching stares anyday though, especially because turning their heads away from the crazy Beijing roads for more than 10seconds (or as long as I happen to be in their line of sight, to be honest) is just asking for trouble.
It just so happens that a reduction in annoying stares and whispers would be an added bonus for me.


About Ibtehaal

I graduated with a degree in Chinese and Economics, which involved spending a year studying Chinese in Beijing. This turned out to be the hardest but most rewarding thing I think I have ever done. I've now returned to China for another year, to study in Shanghai and figure out my next steps.

5 responses »

  1. Oh dear, that doesn’t sound fun. I had a similar sort of experience when I went to Egypt and I remember how uncomfortable I felt.
    You can counterbalance all this staring when you come back to England. Just take a trip on the tube. There will be zero eye contact.

    • Funnily enough though, when we first got here, we kind of ‘enjoyed’ the attention. In a completely non-arrogant way at all. China, the Chinese people, and everything else was all so new to us as well, that it didn’t bother us too much that we might be new to them. As time went on, and we got used to everything, the staring got more and more annoying. “We’re used to you, why can’t you be used to us already???!”
      And ahh, TfL! 😀 The tube here is bad too; you’re standing next to all these people who are talking about you, making guesses as to where you’re from. I’m usually Arab, according to them, but once I make sure to glare at them, they tone it down, and start murmuring amongst themselves wondering if maybe I understand them. In which case, I’m probably from Xinjiang (a region in Northwest China full of Muslims who are not totally Chinese looking in appearance).
      Sorry, that was long!

      • Yeah, the novelty wears off quite quickly! The first thing many people seem to want to know is where you’re you’re from. In Egypt, everywhere we went, there was literally a chorus of people guessing INDIA, MEXICO (?), SPAIN, ITALY, AMERICA etc. When they gave up, they started shouting SHAKIRA, which was funny the first two times and seriously annoying all times after that -_-

        Have you ever said in Chinese that you do understand what they’re saying? If not, do so and snap a picture of their shocked faces 😛

        Also lol you must have an impressive glare to reduce them to murmuring!

      • Yep, definitely the first thing they want to know is where you’re from. They’re rarely ever satisfied with “England”, so I’ve told my ‘origin story’ countless times. Over and over and over again. I know I don’t have to, but talking to people is good real Chinese practice, and the first thing they ever want to know is where we’re from, so we have to get past that before getting anywhere else. Sometimes I entertain the idea of playing along to being Arab, but then totally confusing them (England is a confusing enough answer to them as it is) with making up some awesome story, like ‘Yeah I’m Arab really, but I grew up in Spain, because my dad works there. He grew up in Australia, but was born in Brazil. My mother was born in Tanzania, but moved to Canada when she was really young and then attended university in Russia. And yeah, now I’m living in China.’ Howzat??

        I’ve never interrupted a conversation to let them know that I understand what they’re saying about me, but occasionally they realise because it so happens that we have to speak for some reason, or they build up courage to talk to us, and are just as surprised when they find out we can speak Chinese, even though if they decide to talk to us, that implies that they must be expecting it, even just a little bit? They’re not thaaaat shocked, more impressed.
        I think there’s only been one occasion when I spoke up to tell someone that I understood them while they were talking about me, because I think they were starting to get a little rude/insulting, just ASSUMING that I wouldn’t understand. -_- That’s just not on.

  2. Guahaha that’s a pretty elaborate backstory 😛 I dare you to try it out one day if the opportunity presents itself!

    I hope you gave those people who were being rude a really withering stare and told them that they smell in Gujrati. That’ll teach ’em.


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