The strange pathology of Laowai

Having lived abroad three times in my life (twice in China and once in Singapore), I have had plenty of times to study a peculiar culture. It is not the culture of my adopted country (be it China or Singapore) but rather the culture of the foreigners who opt to live there. Although foreigners abroad tend to divide quite cleanly into tourists, teachers, and the expat-package jet-set, all three (and especially the last two) exhibit a very similar approach to and disdain for their new home.

When I was a student at Georgia Tech we had a joke which went something like this: “Everyone companies about Tech – those who complain the most actually like it here.” The same might be said of foreigners in China. Get a group of them together around a table full of beer and you will hear nothing but complaints about everything ranging from the pollution, to the lack of Western food, to the fact that “no one speaks English” (never mind the fact that English is not their mother tongue), to the quality of the driving. Anything and everything that is different from home is something to be complained about ad nausium.

The fact is we foreigners like to bitch. And we are very good at it. Online forums and blogs similarly make endless comment and complaint about every aspect of life in China. I must confess I too and too easily swept up in a nice kvetch session. It is so easy to assume the haughty air of a know-it-all Westerner and look down at our (extremely) gracious hosts. Think about it, oh ye complaining Laowai, where in our home countries can we get a middle class wage for 20 hours of work that only requires us to talk? And what job in the US throws in a rent-free apartment while they are at it? That’s right, NONE!

Now some might say that Laowai kvetching is harmless because it is done in the company of other Laowai and meant for an audience that understands the dark sense of humor underlying the laughter and the snide remarks. That would be true if our comments were actually restricted only to the company of other knowing foreigners. The fact is we carry the same attitudes and stories home with us. The same hyperbole we use when speaking at the local Laowai bar can be found in our blogs, posts and emails. These are read by people without the contextual knowledge we assume (implicitly) they must have in order to understand that we actually do love China (or whatever country we are living in) but enjoy poking fun at its foibles.

Perhaps in the interest of global harmony, and greater understanding, we should turn it back a notch. We have it great over here and should be thankful, not endlessly complaining. After all, if you hate the food, the pollution, the pushiness, the driving, the way your boss treats you, the spoiled students, the Chinglish, and so on, so much….then LEAVE!

The plane is waiting. I don’t want to be on it. But there is plenty of room for folks who can’t think of anything better to do than complain about how great life is overseas. Let’s try to be a little more civil and watch what we say since, online at least, the world really is listening (and may draw the wrong conclusions)!

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About redguide2010

While living in China's Guizhou Province I fell in love with the China, and travel more generally. I became especially enamored with the batik art of the Miao/Hmong and Buyi minorities. This love affair filled me with the desire to share this art form and the history, and travel foibles of China, with the world. For Batiks, check this out: http://myworld.ebay.com/guizhoumarket I lived in China for more than 3 years doing work as an English teacher, translator, and political economist. In the course of these jobs I had the opportunity to see not only the Southwest (Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan) I called home but also to spend time on business in the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. In my experience, even the most modern, industrial and seemingly bland concrete jungle contains a wealth of history and cultural experience - for those willing to scratch the surface. Let's take a peek together!
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