Advice for New Arrivals to China
(There is something of a changing of the guard underway among foreigners resident in China: some familiar old faces leaving, and a lot of new arrivals. It occurred to me that since the environment for foreigners and foreign companies in China has also changed dramatically, a briefing for newcomers might be in order. For this purpose, I’ve invited two imaginary professors, Professor Dr. Kai Sailu and Professor Du Wasi to engage in an enlightened dialogue.)
(驻华外籍人员正在换防：走了一批老面孔，来了一批新面孔。这让我想起，鉴于外国人和外国企业在中国的生存环境也已发生显著变化，也许是时候该为新来者准备一些情况说明了。为此，我特意邀请两位虚拟出的教授——Kai Sailu和Du Wasi参与这次启蒙对话。)
Dear New Foreign Friends: Welcome to China!
Kai: You’ll be happy to know that we no longer call you “foreign devils”.
Du: Instead, “lao wai” (‘old outsiders’) is standard. This reflects a longstanding attitude toward people from outside the Great Wall of China. Chinese believe in the principle of reciprocity, but that doesn’t mean you should call us “lao nei” (‘old insiders’).
Kai: After all, we’ve been calling ourselves “The Middle Kingdom” for thousands of years.
Du: Actually, if you were expecting a royal red carpet, your timing isn’t very good. In the early days, mid-1970s, Chinese people avoided foreigners like the plague for political reasons. Then came the Opening and Reform era, and foreigners became the object of worship. Eventually the foreigner worship reached ridiculous levels, and now the pendulum is swinging back the other way again.
Kai: Twenty years ago, in relative terms, most foreigners in China were rich compared to most Chinese. The arrival of large numbers of poor foreigners, especially since the global financial crisis in 2008, was a wake-up call for Chinese to realize many of us are far wealthier than most of you.
Du: Add to that the fact that huge numbers of Chinese have been travelling abroad in recent years. In the 1980s, Chinese who had been overseas were treated like astronauts returning from the moon. So illusions have melded into reality.
Kai: What this means is basically that if you behave like an arrogant jerk, you will be treated accordingly, instead of being exempted because you are a foreigner, as might well have been the case some years back.
Du: we welcome you, but you’d better obey the rules. Some of our rules are well-known and transparent. Others are not. You will be expected to obey them all, including the ones you don’t know about. This is especially true for foreign people and organizations, who by definition are potentially suspect of having ulterior, subversive motives.
Kai: no matter how long you live here in China, we expect your understanding of Chinese culture, history, literature, language and society will remain superficial. By contrast, we think we already understand you and your background very well.
Du: one essential skill set you must acquire is using chopsticks. Other optional new learning could involve the ability to squat for long periods, queue-jumping techniques, smoking in no smoking zones, and spitting on sidewalks. If you really want to impress, learn to appreciate eating sea cucumbers, chicken feet, stinky bean curd and durian fruit; while guzzling white lightning “er guo tou” liquor.
Kai: On occasion, it may be wise for you to apologize for various historical misdeeds that you or your government perpetrated against the Chinese people. Our official announcements will tell you when the feelings of the Chinese people are deemed to have been hurt. Since your officials rarely if ever announce such things, it would be premature to expect apologies from us.
Du: You will develop skills and knowledge helpful to navigate Chinese society. However, foreigners’ ability to negotiate a good price will always remain severely handicapped. When a Chinese asks you what you paid for an object bought here, you can tell them the real price paid, or lie and tell them a much lower price. Either way, you will be laughed at and told you paid far too much. It may also be pointed out that your purchase is probably a fake.
Kai: here in our country we have many secrets. They are so numerous and so secret, that it is not possible to explain. But you had better be attentive in this area. You may think I am mainly talking about official data, but actually it is much wider and deeper than that. We don’t share information on family and friends as readily as Americans do, for example. That’s partly the difference between an ancient country and a young upstart. My advice would be to treat everything as a secret, even what you had for breakfast. It’s the safest way. No one really needs to know anything about you. Those that do need to know, know it already anyway.
Du: you will be told again and again by Chinese friends that you are too trusting and you must be more vigilant against cheats and scammers. This advice will also come from cheats and scammers. My advice would be to trust no one, except online retailers with a proven track record, and those “Big V” people on weibo (at least sometimes).
Kai: as a foreigner and/or foreign investor you will spend a lot of time and resources attempting to play by our very confusing and obtuse rules. These change frequently without notice, and are subject to large variations in implementation from place to place and time to time. This is actually good medicine for you. Accept it with gratitude. Don’t bother with the fact that for your local competitors, all this stuff is pretty much negotiable. Your presence has helped us create a whole industry employing lots of people, and this is appreciated.
Du: expect to be invited, often on short notice, to make public performances which will showcase you as a fool, clown, or performing monkey. Be generous in your response. Chinese people really enjoy watching foreigners look silly. Can you really blame them? You really do some funny and entertaining things. Remember the indignities we Chinese suffered during the colonial era.
Kai: prepare to address many ordinary people as “Minister”, “CEO” or “Teacher”. This is a show of respect which is extremely popular nowadays, and the rank is exaggerated upwards on purpose. Even the guy fixing your bicycle, or the clerk in the tax office, can be called “Teacher”.
Du: even you yourself, quite possibly an unqualified college drop-out, may be addressed as “Teacher” at some point. It’s equivalent in sincerity to the cashier in an American supermarket saying “Have a nice day!” to everyone — all day, every day.
Kai: when in doubt about someone’s title, always promote them upwards: “CEO Wong”, “Minister Li”, etc. If you meet an actual teacher, consider promoting them to “Principal Cai” or ” Dean Wu “. In this way the opportunities for career promotions in China become numerous and frequent, yet the actual added economic cost is nil.
Du: fear not: you are not alone. The bloom is not only off the foreign rose for individuals, but for many foreign brands. Many leading foreign brands have been in the hotbox of local media in the past year, including Starbucks (too expensive), Apple (warranty issues), KFC (unsafe chickens), etc., etc.
It’s just the flavor of the times. Despite all this, Chinese people are extremely welcoming, gracious and open-minded hosts. You can count on being well-treated, as long as you behave yourself. If you have an “arrogance management” issue, book an earlier return ticket home.