Is it time to stop spoiling foreigners and expect a little more from them?

Foreigners have enjoyed a privileged place in much of China ever since the country opened up and began welcoming them with open arms in 1978. Is it time to change that a little?

Expats are amazed by the view of the Bund and the Pudong skyline. Shanghai is now home to nearly 180,000 expats.

Foreigners have enjoyed a privileged place in much of China ever since the country opened up and began welcoming them with open arms decades ago. I think it might be time for that to change just a little bit.

I don’t mean for foreigners to not be welcomed with open arms, or for foreigners to stop coming here — talent and ideas from offshore and talent and ideas from within China will together play a part in the future prosperity of this nation — but I think it would be beneficial for expats to stop being given so many free passes, and for some to show a little more respect to our new home.

I was sitting in a restaurant the other day, trying to mind my own business as I ate my lunch. It was hard, though, because two really loud expats were sitting behind me complaining really loudly about their lives in China. In English, of course. There are lots of expats around my workplace, so it’s a common occurrence.

One of their pet peeves was that the ayi (domestic helper), who would arrive that day at 2pm, doesn’t speak a word of English. “She’s so annoying,” one moaned. “Most of her clients are foreigners and she still doesn’t learn!” “Lazy,” her friend replied. “Get a new one!”

Then she shouted out, in broken Mandarin, that she wanted to buy an egg. Since the pair had already finished eating, the waitress must have thought the request was a bit strange — she took a couple of seconds to figure out that the woman was actually asking for their bill (maidan).

The irony of the situation was lost on the pair, but it wasn’t lost on me. I contemplated what kind of a person would think, for even one second, that any expat living in a foreign country should expect the locals to adapt and learn their language.

And then I realized that it might be to do, in some part at least, with the concessions many expats in China are given just by virtue of being, well, foreign. It seems to give some expats — not all — a painful sense of superiority.

Zhang Suoqing / SHINE

An expat tries drying tea leaves in Yuyuan Garden.

At least in the bigger cities, many expats are able to live in little bubbles, where they can complain about the things they don’t like here while expecting the world around them to conform neatly into their limited world views.

In smaller places, expats are often looked up to as gods. Some companies even pay foreigners to pretend they work there for a day or two when investors — or possible investors — come to visit. Real estate agents will hire foreign “actors” to pretend they live in apartment blocks that are up for sale or rent. They feel it adds some international, exotic, expensive element.

It might be the case that Chinese — not that it’s a bad thing — may be a little too hospitable. A little too forgiving. 

Sure, there are some things even I have trouble with in China, like how some people like to spit phlegm really loudly and how pedestrians walk on roads and how I can’t seem to get my head around China’s myriad festivals, but there comes a point when you really just need to sit back, relax and take it all in. The good and the bad.

Which is why I think it might be beneficial for expats to stop being given such an easy ride. No, you shouldn’t expect your ayi to speak English with you — you live in China, so you need to learn Mandarin or Shanghainese or whatever dialect she speaks before you can complain about her lack of English ability.

China has so many amazing things to offer, and it’s definitely one of the most exciting and fast-changing places to live on the planet today. People should feel a sense of privilege to call this place home, and they should work just that little bit harder to fit in.

After all, there's a million miles between an egg and a restaurant bill, but it’s a million miles that can be traveled without too much extra effort. 

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Expats enjoy nightlife on Wukang Road.

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