Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Foreign Specimens in China Part One- "The Attention Seeker"

Technically this blog is classified as an "MBA blog", but seeing as how classes at Carlson don't start for a few months,until the end of August, I'm going to write a few posts concerning life in China. As I am preparing to return to the US after 2 years living in China, I have been reflecting on my time here. The places I've seen, the people I have met, and the things I have done all add up to equal a wonderful overall experience.

I do not intend on turning this blog into a "China blog", as there is already a countless number of blogs (including one of my favorites: China Law Blog) that provide valuable insight into China. However, while waiting for the Carlson MBA experience to begin, I would like to allocate a bit of space in my blog to explaining my take on life in China.

Although one could fill a thousand books on Chinese culture and the Chinese people, I am going to write a series of posts on the various "species" of foreigners in China and how they affect the Chinese perception of foreigners. When considering the Chinese perception of foreigners, two things need to be considered: the Chinese concept of "foreign" and the sources from which they form their opinions of foreigners.

First of all, the average Chinese person views the world in terms of "Chinese" vs. "Foreign" (or "The West", which really means "Everywhere besides China"). In their eyes, all people in the Chinese category are similar and all people in the Foreign category are similar. The logic goes something like this: Americans should be similar to French, which are similar to Brazilians, which are similar to Nigerians...etc. I cannot begin to explain how many times I have heard statements along the lines of, "All foreigners like X", or "Foreigners have an X personality, Chinese people have a Y personality," as if someone from England is just like someone from Argentina simply because they share the "foreign" designation. Along the same lines, many of my students erroneously think that they can improve their English simply by speaking with a foreigner, regardless of where the foreigner is from. In other words, they think that practicing English with a French person whose second language is English is just as good as practicing with a native English speaker just because the French person is foreign. In fact, when discussing the study of English, many Chinese people will substitute
外语 (foreign language) for 英语(English). For example, someone might say (in Chinese), "My daughter studies foreign language very well," meaning, "My daughter studies English very well." The meaning behind this? ALL foreigners must speak English.

Secondly, one must consider the inputs into the Chinese opinion of foreigners. First of all, there is the Chinese State media. Much like the "liberal" American media is decidedly slanted against China, the Chinese State-controlled media is slanted against America or the west in general (i.e. "The capitalist pig American whose hobbies include spreading AIDS…"). Secondly, the movies play a big part in shaping Chinese opinion (think "American Pie" shenanigans or the violence in "Speed"). Lastly, foreigners that are actually in China play a small part.

So, if you combine the Chinese concept of "foreign", the actions of foreigners in China, and the fact that an average Chinese person might only see a foreigner 3 or 4 times in their life, you can see where it may lead. If an Australian acts the fool in public, then Americans must enjoy behaving in that manner as well. If a French person is a prick, then people from the Philippines must be pricks as well. If one foreigner rapes a Chinese girl, then the Chinese media will be quick to show that it verifies the "savageness" of foreign culture. Notice I used the word "culture" rather than "cultures"...

This brings me to the different kinds of foreigners that are in China. Of course, by dividing and putting labels on any sort of people, one runs the risk of over-generalization. Naturally, not all foreigners in China fall into the categories I am going to mention. Conversely, if a foreigner does “fit the mold” of one of these categories, it might only describe one aspect of his/her personality. Also, you must remember that this post is for entertainment purposes only. This is not an academic research paper; it is just my way of explaining all the crazy people I have met in China. If you take into account these foreigners’ actions along with the factors I have mentioned above, it totally explains why some Chinese view foreigners the way they do.

The foreigners that stay in China for an extended period of time can be divided up into 3 groups: Students, Business expats, and English teachers. Most of them fall into the English teacher category. I have met all kinds of English teachers, ranging from intelligent, educated people that value traveling and life experiences over money, to the dregs of western society. Although the range of the types of English teachers is wide, the population distribution is heavily skewed towards the dregs. (Yes, I have been reviewing Statistics for my future MBA classes…) There are the “Attention Seekers”, the “Party Kids”, the “Man Sluts”, and the “Alternate Reality Creators”, to name a few. Today I will be discussing the “Attention Seekers”.

Merely being foreign in China warrants the status of a semi-celebrity. Foreigners stick out like a sore thumb. This effect is even greater in the smaller cities/towns in China. Being able to speak even an infinitesimal amount of Chinese AND being foreign catapults one into the status of demi-god. If any foreigner says as much as "Hello" or "Thank you" in Chinese, the result is a torrent of undeserved praise and wonder. The "attention seeker" not only feels this praise is warranted and takes it to heart, he/she will also take full advantage of their undeserved "status" in China, going out of their way to be seen and heard. You can actually see their chest begin to puff out and their nose slant towards the sky as their ego is stroked 1000 times on a daily basis. Yes, I have seen an "attention seeker" walk up to a group of musicians playing in the square and request a song in Chinese, knowing full well that he will steal the musicians' thunder and all eyes will be on him because (gasp!) he is a foreigner that can speak Chinese. He had no real desire to hear a specific song, he just wanted everyone to praise his Chinese ability. The "attention seeker" will walk down the street talking or singing as loud as possible just to MAKE SURE that everyone stares at him/her in all of his/her glory. The "attention seeker" will constantly go to the various English Corners (places where Chinese people go to practice speaking English) so that he/she can be the center of attention simply for speaking his/her native language. Never mind that the people at the English Corners are just using them as human English-practicing devices. Never mind the fact that these people probably wouldn't have anything to do with them if they weren't English speakers. An English speaking robot would be just as good as the "attention seeker", but attention is attention, right?

Some foreigners take attention seeking to a whole new level. In China, there are a multitude of television shows that feature foreigners. Click here for a perfect example. If you are too lazy to click the link, here is the basic gist: the Chinese have created programs that feature foreigners simply because they are foreigners. 9 times out of 10 these foreigners have no business being on television. They have no talent besides the fact that they can speak some Chinese or perhaps can sing a karaoke song. The producers of the show make the foreigners dance around and sing in Chinese, much to the delight of the Chinese crowd. Sadly, my wife also enjoys watching these shows. The other night we watched one and after a performance one of the "judges" exclaimed, "Wow! It is so amazing that a foreigner like you can master Chinese!" How condescending is that? The stupid foreigner can actually learn Chinese??? Amazing! I just cringe in shame as these talentless foreign attention whores make asses of themselves on TV, taking advantage of the fact that the Chinese are simply fascinated with anything foreign, especially foreign "things" that speak Chinese. I mean, it wouldn't be so bad if the foreigners actually had some talent and deserved to be on television, but if these people were back in their home country, the only television show they could be on would be "Funniest Home Videos". Some foreigners with exceptionally good Chinese skills go on to become national celebrities in China (see Dashan and Da Niu). These are “attention seekers” of the highest order. I’m serious; these guys are household names just because they can speak Chinese and for no other reason. Can you imagine what would happen if they were in the US?

Dashan: I’d like my own television show please.

TV Executive: Ok, what do you do?

Dashan: I can speak Chinese.

TV Executive: And….?

Dashan: Oh, that’s it.

TV Executive: HAHAHAHAHA Security, see this guy out please.

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation. Let's say that a PhD in mathematics is sitting in a classroom of 5th graders studying math. This PhD obviously knows the answers to all the questions and his fellow classmates will be in awe. Should the PhD raise his hand for all the answers to demonstrate his ability? Should the PhD feel proud in the fact that the 5th graders are amazed by his math prowess? Of course not. He has been studying math all of his life and shouldn't try to hog the spotlight. He wouldn't feel the need to steal the glory because there is no glory to be had! The "attention seeker" takes pride in being foreign/speaking English/being able to speak a bit of Chinese even though there is no real merit to any of these things. Does a Chinese person get praise in the US for speaking English? I've never seen it.

What part do the “attention seekers” play in forming the opinion of foreigners in the mind of the Chinese people? They simply reinforce the false notion that all foreigners are outgoing, loud, and love attention. Many times I have been told that my personality is “not like a regular foreigner’s” because I am not loud and I don’t talk simply to hear myself speak. Thanks to the “attention seekers”, I must explain that all foreigners are not like the crazy talkative foreigner they met in the English Corner or like the dancing, Chinese-speaking foreigner monkeys they see on TV.

“Attention Seekers”, we salute you.


Grace said...

I absolutely enjoyed your blog and am looking forward to the next parts of Foreign Specimens in China! I grew up in a Chinese-speaking region in the 80s and had (please note the past tense) the same general Chinese mentality that you described in this blog. A lot of people don't realize that the door swings both ways....Chinese people can learn English and "foreigners" can learn Chinese too! But I was hysterical when I read this blog :)

Unconventional Applicant said...

Thanks for the kudos, Grace. I'm glad you enjoyed Part 1. I just hope that I can provide a bit of insight into the sub-culture of the foreigners in China and how these foreigners affect Chinese perception of the outside world.