Learn Chinese Misconceptions about Foreigners before You Travel to China

Learn Chinese Misconceptions about Foreigners before You Travel to China

Unfortunately, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking in stereotypes, whether or not these beliefs reflect reality. We may not even realize we believe a stereotype, but it can impact the way we treat other people. This is especially true of stereotypes about groups of people with whom we haven't spent much time. Therefore, travelers to other countries may encounter mistaken assumptions or outright bias from locals. For example, in a nationwide survey of Chinese citizens, 57% reported never having interacted with someone from outside China. Americans in particular face many stereotypes when traveling overseas because U.S. politics and culture are so prominent worldwide, and because many Americans have traveled abroad and make up a large share of international tourists.

It can feel uncomfortable to interact with someone who assumes they know something about you based solely on your appearance or nationality. Still, many travelers find that the benefits of visiting another country outweigh the costs of dealing with stereotypes. If you keep a realistic outlook and prepare in advance for how to respond to tricky questions or comments, you're less likely to face an unpleasant surprise during your trip. Read on for common misconceptions some Chinese people have about foreigners and for suggestions about facing these stereotypes with tact, perhaps even changing some minds along the way.

Hundred Dollar Bills

1. Foreigners are Rich

If you've made it to China, by definition you have enough money to afford what can be a very pricey flight. But some Chinese people's assumptions about foreigners' wealth go way beyond travel costs. The United States in particular has a reputation for being a very rich country; the fact that it has the highest global GDP reinforces this viewpoint. However, as most Americans know, the truth is more complicated than that. National wealth is not distributed equally and plenty of U.S. citizens are struggling to pay off loans or living paycheck to paycheck.

Foreigners in China come from all walks of life and a variety of income levels. Those teaching in China may be foregoing a higher salary they could earn at home, and students in China on scholarships may not have their own money at all. While it's true that foreign teachers in China tend to earn more than their local colleagues, they also have higher expenses, especially for travel home to visit family. So it can be frustrating when Chinese people assume you have multiple houses and cars back home, when in fact you only have a bicycle and have just moved out of a college dorm.

Don't be surprised if Chinese people ask you how much money you make. When I lived in China, everyone from the hair stylist to seemingly every taxi driver had no problem asking about my salary or how much I paid in rent. Some people may even skip asking how much you make and assume you have piles of cash lying around: one ex-pat noted a Chinese colleague wanted to start a business together because they assumed the foreign teacher could afford a hefty startup investment.

To combat this stereotype, try to be discreet about how much you make. If a stranger asks about your salary, you can answer how you see fit because the stakes are low: you'll likely never see them again. But when interacting with coworkers, try to be humble and avoid flashy displays. Don't show surprise if they live more modestly than you do. Finally, be wary of people trying to overcharge you by practicing your haggling skills.

Room Service

2. Foreigners are Entitled

If all foreigners are rich, the assumption goes, they must also be spoiled and accustomed to luxury. Unfortunately, some international travelers do lend truth to this stereotype by expecting locals to cater to their tastes and agree with their opinions, including opinions about the country in which they are a guest. This can lead some Chinese people, from bosses to tour operators, to coddle their foreign employees and clients. I can't tell you how many times I've been offered sweet-and-sour pork (糖醋里脊 tángcùlǐjǐ) because that's "what Americans like". Some Chinese people may also discourage you from traveling to rural areas because they're afraid you won't be able to handle the harsher way of life there, and might even bring unfavorable reports back to family and friends.

The best way to counteract this stereotype is to remember that you are a guest in this country and should treat the local people with respect. It's unreasonable to expect things to be identical to your home country. Take the time to learn about the local culture before your trip so you can be prepared for these differences and approach them with sensitivity. At the same time, be mindful of avoiding your own stereotypes about the country you plan to visit. Do your best to try new foods and find at least a few besides sweet-and-sour pork that you enjoy. I promise, it'll be worth it.

English Dictionary

3. Foreigners Can't Speak Mandarin

Sometimes that sense of entitlement causes foreign visitors to neglect learning even basic phrases before traveling abroad. Moreover, Chinese people take pride in their language, including its complexity, and they may assume Chinese is “too hard” for foreigners to learn. Some Chinese people react with surprise when they meet foreigners in China who do speak Mandarin or Cantonese. While this shouldn't be shocking, since 3.4 million Americans speak some version of Chinese, it's still a prevalent stereotype in China.

Even once you've demonstrated your Chinese language skills, Chinese people may still default to speaking English with you because they've been studying it since they were little and want the chance to practice or show off. Or, they may be hesitant to speak Mandarin with you in professional or other high-stakes settings because they’re not sure you’ll understand correctly. Some locals may have such a strong belief that foreigners can’t speak Mandarin that they won’t even realize you’re speaking it until you repeat yourself a few times. This happened to me when taking taxis in Chengdu, a city that doesn't have as large a foreign population as Shanghai or Beijing. Despite all these hurdles, you will have a fuller experience if you can speak some Mandarin to interact with local people.

There's no excuse for not learning at least a few phrases in Chinese before your trip; don't let yourself fit that stereotype of entitlement! With a host of free online resources at your fingertips, learning Mandarin is easier than ever. Speechling also offers tutoring by native speakers who will give you valuable feedback on everything from pronunciation to vocabulary. They can help you prepare for your trip, whether you're just sightseeing for a few weeks or planning to work in China for the long term.


4. Foreigners are Bad News

Many Chinese people enjoy movies and TV shows from other countries, particularly the U.S. Unfortunately, some people jump to the conclusion that movies and shows depict the real, everyday lives of U.S. citizens, leading them to form negative stereotypes. For example, some Chinese people may assume Americans are promiscuous (开放 kāifàng or "open") and have at least one partner, if not more, at any given time. Of course, some foreigners in China do act like they want to date everyone in town, which strengthens the stereotype.

Due to Hollywood's penchant for fistfights and explosions, some Chinese people also assume Americans are violent. Several Chinese people have asked me if I've ever owned or shot a gun. Since gun ownership is legal in the U.S. but not in China, it's a reasonable question expressing curiosity about something the vast majority of Chinese people have never experienced. But that doesn't make conversations about guns in the U.S. any less uncomfortable.

More abstractly, some Chinese people assume that foreigners, particularly Americans, are untrustworthy or selfish. This may stem from official narratives about the so-called Century of Humiliation at the hands of Western nations. Whereas Chinese society adheres to strong familial and hierarchical relationships, Western cultures tend to focus more on the individual. In response to this cultural difference, some Chinese people assume foreigners will always prioritize their own gains over the well-being of others.

The best way to combat these stereotypes is by being yourself, and by emphasizing that you are just one person out of many who share your culture and express it in different ways. Speaking from your own experience may help people realize there's more than just one way to be an American, a Black person, a Christian, et cetera. If you feel comfortable, you can let the person know how their comments or questions make you feel. At the same time, remember that it's not your responsibility to change everyone's mind. Make sure you have a support system of people who appreciate and respect you as an individual. Facing stereotypes can feel stressful and isolating, so you'll want a core group of friends or family to rely on.

Confident Conversation

Preparing for Misconceptions Will Help You Face Them

No one is immune to misconceptions when traveling. Even the simple phrase 老外(lǎowài or foreigner) is loaded with assumptions, some positive and some negative. Expect to receive some questions that might feel invasive to you, and hopefully the fact that you're prepared will make it easier to navigate those conversations. You can practice helpful Mandarin vocabulary with a Speechling tutor to develop your own standard answers and build your confidence. Try to keep an open mind and be aware that you probably have your own assumptions about Chinese people, too. One of the best parts of travel is the opportunity to exchange ideas and cultures. If you embrace the learning process, including the rough patches, your trip will be more enjoyable and you'll bring home plenty of great memories.