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Cool Foreigners, Crazy Foreigners - The Perception of Westerners in China /Taiwan and the Limits of Integration

This morning I stumbled upon an interesting article on lostlaowai. The website reported on something that happened in Chengdu: a Westerner (in Chinese often called 老外, pinyin: lǎowài) shouted furiously at a bus driver who apparently had not stopped to let him get in. The foreigner had to run after the bus and in the process he got his trousers dirty. When the driver opened the door, the guy stepped in and began to heap on him a flow of angry words in a mix of Chinese, English and another language.

Had he expected that, in the era of smartphones, the fit of anger of a Westerner in China would not to go viral within a few hours? If he did expect such a thing, he was wrong. In fact, a passenger shot a video of the screaming laowai and posted it online. The mad laowai became yet another internet sensation, yet another example of a 'crazy foreigner'.

The expatriate community criticized him, though not unanimously, for damaging with his behaviour the reputation of Westerners in China. I think that this incident, which is one of similar episodes that have been reported online in recent years, reveals the extent of the love-hatred relationship between Westerners and Chinese.

The Laowai and the Local Environment

Let me say that although I think that the reaction of the Western guy in the video was way too extreme, a part of me does understand him. I explained in previous posts that Chinese people tend to have an attitude towards strangers that I would sum up in the sentence: "This is none of my business". People drive like crazy? "None of my business". Your neighbour who lives on the top floor built an illegal house on the rooftop that is supposed to be common space? "None of my business". Someone talks so loud in a cafe' that you can barely hear your own voice? "None of my business." A shop owner puts tables, chairs and a food stand in the middle of the pavement and people can barely walk? Again, "none of my business."

I have written a post about cyclists' misconduct in Taipei. They ride their bikes on the pavement among pedestrians, regardless of the great danger. Bikes come so close to you that accidents are a matter of a few centimeters. Another example are people standing right in front of the door of underground trains while there is a lot of space left. This happens quite a lot of times. I can imagine what would happen in Germany: people would simply criticize the cyclists, they would stop them and tell them to be careful. And if someone blocked a door, people would tell him or her.

If I were in Berlin, and I took the underground, and I happened to stand in front of the exit door, barring the way to the passengers who want to get off, they would show to me that I am not considerate. Once the following scene happened to me. I was wearing a backpack and I was blocking part of the exit door. An old woman looked at me and said: "Young man, do you really have to stand in front of the door with this backpack? Take it off!" "Sorry," I said smiling, but my smile immediately froze into a grimace when I saw the hard, uncompromising look in her eyes. "Yeah, sorry," she said with a sneer. Then I got angry myself and turned away.

Well, this doesn't happen every day, of course, and not everyone is like that woman. But in Germany, in Italy and - I dare say - in the whole of Europe, it is not uncommon for strangers to criticize each other. Another example (the last I shall give, because I think I've already made myself clear) is what happened to me in Italy last January.

Because of a strike (yet another one, yes!) many trains of Rome's underground were delayed. I waited for a train for about twenty minutes, and while I was standing on the platform, a huge crowd gathered, and all of us were pissed off because we had to wait twenty minutes instead of the usual five or six. When the train finally arrived, it was already full. Everyone tried to get into a carriage, squeezing themselves between the other passengers. You could feel that we were all totally annoyed by this situation, and angry at the public transport, the strikers, the politicians, the economy and I don't know how many other things that go wrong. 

I was one of the first in the line, so I managed to sneak inside and move to the centre of the carriage. Then suddenly the general anger got out of control. A woman who had pushed herself inside had bumped into another woman, who turned towards her and said: "Don't you see that I am standing here? Do you think I am made of thin air and if you touch me I'll disappear? There is just no place for you in the carriage!"
A battle of words ensued, which none of them won, I believe. They just wanted to vent their anger, and I guess they did it in such a way.

I am not suggesting that all Europeans quarrel with each other all the time. My point is that this sort of things do happen. Many people apparently think that being rude to strangers is acceptable.

Now, the Chinese attitude is to avoid confrontation with strangers at all costs, unless it is absolutely necessary. They want to avoid trouble, but they also tend to keep a huge distance from strangers. That is way people seldom talk or smile to each other, help each other open a door etc. Don't get me wrong, people do help one another in certain situations; what they will absolutely avoid is confrontational interaction with strangers. Unless it is a serious situation, they will just mind their own business and look away if something happens.

For instance, one day I went to the Zoo in Taipei, I and my friends lined up, and behind us there was a middle-aged man who kept on touching us inadvertently with his foot or his bag or his arm, because he apparently was very impatient and wanted to go as far as possible in the line. If I had been alone, or if I had been in Europe and the man had been European, I would have just said something because I think he shouldn't behave like that. But my Taiwanese friends, though they found it annoying, too, did not tell him anything: first of all, because he was a stranger, and second, because he was older. 

In general, people here don't want to get into trouble by starting a fight with someone they don't know, so they'll let it be. This has its good sides;  for example, most people will leave you alone. However, there is a difference between different parts of the Chinese-speaking world. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, this attitude also means that you will be very safe and no one will harm you. In certain parts of mainland China, probably because of the poverty, that might not be the case. 

Although Chinese people tend to be cautious when dealing with strangers, they can also be direct, aggressive and even rude in other situations, most especially towards the people they know and towards people hierarchically inferior to them. Parents can be very harsh to their children; girlfriends to boyfriends and vice versa; friends to friends; bosses to employees etc. In Europe, I mostly had fight with strangers, but in Taiwan I had trouble with the people I was close to. For them, it is incomprehensible that someone might get angry at a stranger, but if it happens in other circumstances it is acceptable; for us, if a friend shouts at us because we have come late, or if they blame us because we have no girlfriend or boyfriend, we might found that very tasteless (bear in mind I'm oversimplifying).

As a consequence of this, many foreigners like me are sometimes frustrated because we see things that we don't like and we wish to vent our anger. For example, one day I was on a bus. The driver suddenly braked and a woman almost fell down. I think that it would have been justifiable to remind the driver that the safety of the passengers comes first; but no one said anything.  Another, pettier example is what happened to me last week in the MRT. A middle-aged woman was sitting right beside me. She kept on swaying her foot back and forth. Many Taiwanese do such things as a sort of exercise to improve blood circulation (at least that's what I've heard). I looked at her several times to show her that she was too close to me and her foot might hit me. But she didn't get it. And at last, her foot struck my leg. She smiled and said sorry. But I thought: "You could have been careful and avoided it; it was obvious that this might happen." Honestly, I have adapted myself to the local habit of letting things go. But there are moments when I get very impatient, for example when people talk on the phone in the library (or even listen to music and sing... sigh!), when cyclists come too close to me etc.

I wonder why that foreigner in Chengdu got so angry; was it because he is a crazy guy, or had he accumulated a lot of frustration, or did he just want to show his anger to the bus driver so that he might think twice the next time before ignoring a passenger waiting at a bus stop?

Love and Hatred

I have heard a lot of things about foreigners here in Taiwan, and I have come to realize how deep misunderstandings between the two cultures are, and how much fascination and repulsion, curiosity and indifference, goodwill and rejection co-exist and shape the imagination of both sides. At the beginning, people said to me that foreigners were welcomed in Taiwan, which is certainly true to a great extent. But somehow, there is also a lot of diffidence and resentment. 

The first time I became aware of this phenomenon was in Germany. I met a Chinese student who one day complained that his university in China had built a cafeteria that provided Western food for the foreign students. He thought that his country was too nice to foreigners, and that they took advantage of it. After all, why can't foreigners eat Chinese food and live like locals?

In Taiwan, too, I heard a few times Taiwanese saying: "We are too nice to foreigners". I believe that here lie a lot of misunderstandings. First of all, what Chinese perceive as nice may not be perceived as nice by foreigners. For instance, it is true that foreigners at some Chinese universities have some privileges; but it is also true that the fees for foreigners are higher. On the other hand, German universities are not always nice to foreign students, but they treat them like German students. I studied in Berlin, and all of us, no matter if German, European or non-European, paid no fees at all. So, would the German university be nicer if it gave foreigners special food and the staff smiled at them and treated them well, but made them pay fees? I guess it depends on the perspective. Perhaps Westerners would willingly accept to live like locals, if they were also allowed to pay like locals.

Similarly, some Taiwanese I met when I came here were nice to me. But mostly, they were very nice at the beginning, especially the first time, and they said they would help me if I needed something etc. But actually, very few of them ever helped me or had any time. Which is okay, I don't mind. But I found the difference between how they present themselves as helpful and nice, and the actual fact they neither have the time nor the patience to actually help, quite striking. I'm not implying that Europeans are nicer. But hopefully Europeans don't say they are too nice to foreigners, because that would be one of the biggest lies in history.

Basically, Taiwanese often times see Westerners as too arrogant, unreliable, pleasure-seeking and rude. At the same time, Westerners enjoy a positive image: cool, interesting, open-minded and a bunch of other things. These different perceptions circulate in the society simultaneously, can be interchangeable, can even be expressed by the same person. 

The image of the arrogant foreign teacher that comes to Taiwan to enjoy girls and easy money and who doesn't care about the local culture, or the image of the arrogant foreign worker who disregards even the basic rules of decency, exist in the collective perception though they are by no means shared by a majority (I believe).

In mainland China, the situation is often more complex than in Taiwan due to the political frictions and the memory of Western colonialism. In 2012, for example, the internet company Baidu and the forum "jointly launched a campaign with Sina Weibo [...] calling on Internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China" (note). This campaign was a consequence of an episode that had happened in May, when a British national allegedly molested a Chinese woman and was detained. 

The same year, the Chinese government tightened control on foreigners who entered China illegally or overstayed their visa. Chen Tianben, associate professor with the Chinese People's Public Security University, stated that: "Apart from the clash of different cultures, some foreigners behave badly or even engage in criminal activities. Those who violate Chinese laws will also be punished as no one has privilege in front of the law."

That is certainly true and I am not saying that foreigners who break the law should be left unpunished. I am simply stating that this is another proof of the love-hatred relationship, and of a certain degree of over-generalization, between Westerners and Chinese. 

I myself keep on receiving offensive blog comments from Taiwanese, such as the following one: "white trashes stop writing blog and bring more white motherfucker to my country, i will kill some of you to bring up the motherfucking racistism over here, white cunt on". Of course, I don't publish this sort of comments, and I am absolutely certain that people like this one are perhaps 0,01% of the Taiwanese population. Nevertheless, a certain kind of resentment, diffidence and misunderstanding does exist, and being called 'white trash' or 'white scum' when I open my comment section, does not make me particularly happy.

How Much Integration is too Much Integration?

The real question is now: should foreigners feel that they have to prove that prejudices and stereotypes towards them are wrong? Do we have to adjust ourselves to local habits, customs and thinking? How can we cope with all those cultural differences that we may not like? Should we give ourselves up and become as similar as possible to the locals?

I will write a separate post about this topic (it's already 1:54 am here and I can barely keep my eyes open). For now, I will just say that there are foreigners who try to accept local rules and behaviours in their entirety. Others seem to be rather indifferent. While others, like me, want to find a compromise; I don't want to harm anyone or do anything that might hurt others, but I have my own standards and want to stay true to myself, no matter where I am. Besides, that is also the position that I maintain regarding foreigners in Europe. But, as I said, I'd better go to sleep now. 

If you want, take a look at the the video of the Chengdu incident:  


  1. @Kade Lai

    thanks for your comments: ) I will reply to all of them, but at the moment I have time to answer only this one, if you don't mind.

    Don't worry, I'm certainly not offended. I like disagreements, and since you are simply expressing your view on the subject, there is no reason for me to take it personally.

    There is a reason why I group China and Taiwan together. I feel that the impact of Maoism on China has been quite overstated, and that the similarities between Taiwan and China are astounding, although of course there are also many differences. In some of my posts I focus more on the similarities.

    I think that the Cultural Revolution did not have the deep impact that many people seem to assume. Chinese society today is a world away from the society Mao and his supporters had envisioned. After Mao's death and the end of the planned economic system, the old cultural patterns have reemerged, and I think they had not died out. If you consider marriage or dating behaviour, the value of money, of social status, of face, of 'guanxi' and other cultural peculiarities, you can see many common characteristics between China and Taiwan. Moreover, many academic works also group China and Taiwan. Similarly, East and West Germany were different, but they were still German. They evolved from a common point and became different, but the common cultural heritage could not be eliminated in just 50 years. That is my view on the matter and why I talk about China and Taiwan together. Nevertheless, I know that socially and politically the two systems are quite different.

    Perhaps you're right when you say I should spend more time in mainland China. I'd really like to do that. I have lots of Chinese friends and learnt many things from them. The problem is that I value my personal freedom very much. I want to read the books I like, I want to surf the internet freely, and I also want to write my blog. Unfortunately, my blog is blocked in China, and I find it very annoying. That's why it's hard for me to live in countries like China and even Singapore. But I'm planning to give it a try in the near future.

  2. @ Kade Lai

    thanks for your comment, it's good to have some stimulating discussions from time to time. Now, let me summarise your arguments to see if I understand them correctly. You think 1) that China and Taiwan are very different from each other and should not be grouped together when analysing cultural phenomena regarding Chinese culture; 2) the influence of the Communist Party in China has been decisive in shaping today's mainland Chinese culture and in destroying traditional ways of life and thinking; 3) every deep observation of China and Taiwan must lead to the two aforementioned conclusions.

    Let me know explain my point of view on the subject:

    As I have stated before, I do think that China and Taiwan should be grouped together. The example you mentioned about recent Chinese laws that reinforce filial piety does not seem to prove your point, but rather mine. In fact, Taiwan does have laws inspired by filial piety. Quote: " Filial piety, deemed a 'core value' in Taiwan's society, has been strictly upheld by the law. The Criminal Code subjects children convicted on charges of parent abandonment, for failing to fulfill the obligation to look after their parents, to prison terms of six months to five years (under article 294 of Chapter 5, Crimes of Abandonment)." ( The new Chinese law you mentioned is an extreme attempt to reinforce values of filial piety. If a government tries to uphold such ancient values, is that not a proof that the Communist regime has moved away from its Maoist desire to destroy traditional values? And does filial piety legislation in both China and Taiwan not show the common root of family values in both countries? The Chinese law is simply more drastic, but it is still clearly drawn on the Confucian tradition. As you seem to have lived both in China and Taiwan, I wonder whether you have not noticed that many Chinese people embrace at least certain traditional values about family (gender-roles, importance of money and status, importance of parental support in the mate-selection etc.). China has long ago moved away from its Maoist extremism, and old cultural values that superficially seemed to have been erased by Communism have reemerged.

    Japan and Korea, in my opinion, present quite different characteristics from China and Taiwan. For example, Japan was an aristocratic, feudal society, with a very peculiar social structure that was quite different from China's. I recommend you the book "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" for an analysis of Japanese culture and a comparison with China. Therefore, I see China and Taiwan as way more similar to each other than, let's say, China and Japan. Nevertheless, one could also group 'East Asian' countries and analyse some of their general cultural phenomena, because they indeed share some core traditional values.

  3. The reason why I emphasize so much the similarities between China and Taiwan is that I completely disagree with certain commentators who interpret cultural phenomena in today's China as a consequence of Communist rule. When I lived in Taiwan, I noticed that things which I, too, considered to be only mainland Chinese, exist in Taiwan as well. I mentioned marriage behaviour, dating, gender-roles, hierarchy etc. I could also mention the fact that people don't talk about politics. Many Taiwanese avoid talking about 'sensitive topics'. It's too long a point to explain, but it has to do with culture. What I want to say is that it is legitimate both to emphasize the differences and the similarities between China and Taiwan. It depends on the particular purpose one has in mind. I'm afraid there are some anti-Chinese and pro-Taiwanese people who for political and personal reasons do not desire to emphasize the similarities and want to depict China as something completely different from Taiwan. I'm not interested in this kind of emotion- and politics-driven discussions. Having said that, I am not a supporter of the one-China policy. But I am also not a friend of China-bashing.
    I'd like to recommend you two other books: "Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity" by Mark Harrison, and "Whither Taiwan and Mainland China: National Identity, the State and Intellectuals" by Zhidong Hao. Both books analyse the process of construction of Taiwanese identity and its relationship with 'Chineseness'.

    I don't think that asking Singaporeans what they think about China and Taiwan would be of much help. First of all, I assume different Singaporeans would give me different answers. Second, you are talking about the subjective feelings of a group of people. I don't want to enhance any particular political agenda. The reality is not flat, but always complex, contradictory, and multifaceted. I try to see things from different angles, and sometimes even to accept contradictory points of view and integrate them. For instance, I don't think your view fundamentally contradicts mine.
    I think it is important to understand China not only in terms of politics and economics, but also in broader cultural terms. And I believe that similarities between Taiwan help understanding Chinese culture better, because they go beyond current events and political conflicts.

  4. Bravo Kade! Bravo! I am on your side! Taiwanese and chinese share many the same internal values, which I can't deny, but I can always distinguish Chinese from Taiwanese at the first sight. I don't know how to explain this feeling. Maybe it's their behavior, attitude, or just the vibe they give off...I guess? And the main reason I agree with kade is most of Taiwanese don't like to be described as Chinese. If you want to piss off a Taiwanese, just say " you just like a chinese"! Yet of course you have the right to group any different countries together, like I have the right to say out loud " I hate to be considered as a Chinese" :)

  5. @anonymous

    I think we should distinguish between politics and culture. You and Kade are discussing the issue on a political level; you are emphasizing that China and Taiwan are two separate nations, and this is a legitimate point of view that I am not criticising.

    But if you are saying that China and Taiwan are totally different and it is not possible to compare them, then I disagree with you. Look at another example: Germany and Austria. Of course, they are two different countries, but they share a common language and in many respects a common culture. I absolutely want to avoid to politicise every single cultural or historical analysis. If I compare Germany and Austria, this is not a political statement in favour of unification between them. And if I compare China and Taiwan, it is also not a statement in support of the one-China principle. Politics and independent thinking should always maintain a certain distance from each other, and whenever certain political groups try to politicise all free thinking, they in the end kill it.


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