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'Lao wai' speak out on false image in China
(Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-02-06 16:36

Out of habit, Chinese often use the word "foreigner" when speaking of Americans. For example, one of my Chinese friends said to me once, "I didn't know foreigners liked spicy food." (He meant "Americans" when he said "foreigners").

You'll probably accidentally offend many people if you refer to them as "foreigners" in their own country. Also, you should note that the word "foreigner" in English has a slightly negative connotation, so you'll find that Americans generally don't use this word so often.

If an American in China referred to Chinese as "lao wai," I think most Chinese would probably be confused or offended. The same is true here. I would say, "I didn't know Americans liked spicy food," rather than using the term "foreigner".

This also explains why many Americans who are learning Chinese think that the term "lao wai" is somehow an insult (because the word "foreigner" in English is often an insult), when in fact the term "lao wai" doesn't have a negative connotation in Chinese.

A stereotype that I have encountered among my Chinese friends is that all "Western" countries are basically the same. This stereotype couldn't be more wrong. I have lived in Europe and visited many countries in the "West." To tell the truth, Germany and France seem almost more "foreign" to me than China does.

I think many Chinese would find that the US and China are much more similar than they ever dreamed before coming here. Of course there are major cultural differences; however, if you went to France (for example), I think the cultural differences would be much greater than they are with the US. So I would be cautious about making general statements about the "West."

If an American claimed that Japan and China "are basically the same," I think many Chinese would either laugh at his ignorance or take offense. The same is true here. Be especially careful when comparing Canada to the US - many Canadians hate the US more than any other people on Earth - I'm not joking.

Especially here in the Midwest, America is generally a very religious and conservative place. Yes, I know Americans who think sex before marriage is "evil" and immoral. Yes, I know Americans who go to church every Sunday and don't drink alcohol because they think it is immoral.

America isn't Hollywood

My Chinese friends always seem shocked when I tell them this. America is a very religious country - most people in other countries don't realize this at all. Stereotypes generated by Hollywood movies influence them too much. As an example, one of my friends kissed his girlfriend in a public park here in the suburbs of Minneapolis once. A man came up to him and said: "I bring my family to this park. I don't want to see you here 'having sex' ever again or I'll call the police!" That is a true story.

For example, how often do you see people kissing on the streets in Minnesota? Probably never. I can't remember ever seeing that in all the years I've lived here. (If you go to California, you might see something like that more frequently). In any case, you are probably much more likely to see something like that in Shanghai or Beijing than in Minneapolis. In fact, Europeans always make fun of Americans because they think we are too conservative in social matters.


I would say that the typical American has four or five girlfriends or boyfriends before they end up getting married. (From age 16 to 25). Most Americans start dating in high school. In general, I think American dating is much different from Chinese dating. Americans in general don't associate dating with marriage (not directly). American dating leads indirectly to marriage; Chinese dating seems to lead more directly to marriage. That is just my own observation - I could be wrong.

In general, Americans don't care so much where you come from. Virtually everyone's family here came from some other country at some point. This results in a very different way of thinking from many other countries. This also (in part) explains why as soon as American soldiers got to Iraq they were finding wives almost before the war was over. It is not because all American men are "se lang." (means lecher). It is because Americans in general really don't care so much about "cultural differences" when it comes to "love." They just think that the cultural differences make the person more interesting, and thus probably more attractive.

College is the "golden age" of dating for Americans. Americans date more during their college years than at any other time in their lives (in general). It is more socially acceptable to do a lot of dating during your college years in American culture than at any other time. Just note that as people get older here, they usually settle down and date a lot less than they do in college - if you have seen shows like "Sex and the City" (which is apparently the most rented DVD in China these days), keep in mind that the world represented in these shows is NOT TYPICAL here. And every American guy I know hates that show because they think it is "se lang" training for women.

Of course, there are Americans who hate foreigners, are ultra-nationalist, and racist. Well, every society has those people (unfortunately).

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