Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shanghai Answers: How are foreigners treated? (Part I)

It's been hard keeping up a blog, not just because I'm busy but because Shanghai is starting to feel like "normal life". I'm sure things happen that would be interesting or strange to someone who doesn't live here, but I'm getting to a point where I stop noticing these things. Which is great for me but not so great for blogging. Sorry y'all.

Yesterday was a pure "foreigner" feeling kind of day, though, so back to the blogging I come! As always, these are generalizations based on my experience so I encourage anyone who disagrees or has differing experiences to add to the comments.

I'm calling this "Part I" because I know there is much more I will learn and observe over my years in Shanghai.

The Good


Firstly, I am thankful on a regular basis for how incredibly patient Chinese people are with non-Chinese speakers. The Chinese tendency to express delight at any laowai's attempt at using Chinese has been extremely helpful as I struggle to learn Mandarin. I imagine if the tables were turned and I were in much of the English speaking world, speaking English as poorly as I speak Chinese, the "learn English" folk would be out in full force. Google Translate & Maps have only recently been enabled on my phone (never buy an Android phone in China...should have been obvious) and I need to express my appreciation to the probably dozens of kind people who have painstakingly tried to give me directions over the past months.


On top of language, dining is a huge cultural marker. I had a lot of anxiety about going out to eat with Chinese people since I read the book Decoding China (highly recommended btw). All of the etiquette surrounding food is a lot to take in. Where to sit, the dance around who pays, how to share, how to politely not eat food you don't like...there are thousands of blog entries and online magazine posts that try to detail it all. There are even courses and workshops for foreigners to try to be polite diners.

Amazing everyone with our inability to transfer noodles from the serving bowl to our plates. 

We've been out to dinner at Chinese restaurants a couple of times with incredibly generous, patient, and overall awesome friends of ours. And it has always gone fine, as far as we can tell. The people we've gone out with work with foreigners and understand that we typically eat very different food and have different customs. While other cities might have more cross-cultural issues, I think, especially with food and language, people in Shanghai give us a lot of leeway. The hardest thing about the meals has been trying to keep up with the number of courses that our hosts order!

Yuyuan Gardens, aka tourist central

The Not So Good

The bumbling foreigner schtick and hospitality of Chinese people doesn't carry over into all aspects of expat life, unfortunately.


Okay, I know I said above that Chinese people are super patient and amazing when it comes to language. It isn't always the case. The concept of  "face", so different from Western conceptions of communication, means that people want to maintain their dignity, even if it means bending the truth, avoiding situations, or outright lying. I could write volumes about "face" and the difficulties for the uninitiated to adapt, but I'll just quickly point out that it can cause Chinese people to avoid foreigners to not worry about language differences. 

Taxi drivers, customer service staff, sales people...if you look like a foreigner, sometimes they will look past you altogether. Some chalk it up to laziness or impatience (and it probably is for some people) but from talking to friends who have been here longer, at least sometimes this has to do with shame at not being able to speak English. This is most frustrating when it comes to taxis that avoid stopping for foreigners but comes in handy with pushy sales people in the streets. 


Foreigner = rich. That's the basic perception in a lot of the world, certainly not unique to China. While we are rich compared to the average person in Shanghai, we don't spend the way your typical expat in Shanghai probably does. As a result, we continually disappoint salespeople who can quickly identify us as laowais. 

Once, while shopping at a fabric market to have clothes made, a vendor yelled me that the $15 reduction in price I was asking for was "nothing in your country". I have had a sales person scream and throw a calculator, telling me that I am not welcome in the market where she works because I didn't have enough money for the boots I asked her about. Partly sales tactic and, I think, partly genuine belief that we are selfishly hoarding our cash.

On a more serious level, medical professionals will also try to get as much money as possible out of us and our insurance companies. The dentist closest to the teacher housing is known for recommending unnecessary and expensive procedures. And the whole reason I decided to write this post is that I was pushed to have an unnecessary surgery yesterday so someone could make a buck. 

I went to a local hospital for a "female exam" not covered by my insurance. It was recommended by a friend of a friend, both Chinese. The Irishman and I thought we were getting great (if hygienically questionable and more expensive than expected) service. I was rushed to the front of every line for tests. The doctor was very patient with my language skills. She made a big show of taking images of my reproductive organs and sympathetically expressed that I would need to have surgery then and there. Feeling a little uneasy with just Google Translate, we called my husband's Chinese coworker, and had her speak to the doctor. When I took the phone back, she told me, "Get out of there right away." 

Scrapping her Saturday plans, and with husband and daughter in tow, she took me to a better, cleaner, non-price gouging hospital where the doctor confirmed what Google had told me on the way: I most definitely do not need surgery of any kind. I went from thinking I was going to need to be sliced open and have my reproductive organs tampered with to being told that, like after every other similar exam I have ever had, I am perfectly fine and healthy. The surgery would have been both cosmetic and internal...think about that. 

The second hospital confirmed that the initial hospital that I visited (PLA 455 Hospital near Hongqiao Road, also known as a place where they killed a guy after taking his money with unproven stem cell treatment) was trying to make money off of me and that army hospitals are known for giving foreigners unnecessary procedures in order to make a buck. My guess is that the original woman who recommended the place hadn't realized how greedy they would be when seeing two expats come in their doors. 

Naive foreigner bubble officially burst. 
Life is good.

Overall, being a laowai is wonderful. But there is a dark side. I don't mind paying an extra dollar or two on items in markets. I get way more out of China than I put back, financially and experientially. That being said, when my health is involved, I've learned to ask for help from locals to ensure I stay safe. 

On top sometimes using foreigners for money, race is an issue. White foreigners especially get unfairly good treatment and respect, sometimes at the expense of Chinese people. I have several anecdotes around this and eventually I'll type up some thoughts!

This post is just the beginning of thinking about my life here and I look forward to more experiences, conversations, and reading that will give me insight into expat life in Shanghai.