Many foreigners come to China for different reasons. Some want to learn about Chinese culture, learn the Chinese language, or just experience China with no specific goals in mind. One thing is certain though, that a lot of these foreigners end up hitting a wall with experiencing authentic China. Their Chinese studies stagnate or China life falls into a rut of Tsingtao nights and A is for Apple mornings, and a lot of it has to do with who their friends are.
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All people everywhere, as a natural response, seek out similar individuals. For us foreigners in China, it is usually those who speak our language and knows our culture, pizza, beer, and baseball. The ignorance towards the importance of numbers like 4 and 8 and 6 is a welcome relief where we can share our strange China experiences and have someone who “gets it”. But this comfort comes at a price for experiencing authentic China.
Spending so much time around people who only speak English, who don’t spit randomly on the street, or search for the extra yimao to save on noodles, isolates one from learning about true China. Take these following 3 examples: Learning the Chinese language, Learning about Chinese culture, and the dreaded waiguoren alcoholism.
If you are learning Chinese and finding it difficult, it might be because free time is spent with people who speak to you only in English and surrounded by friends who act as a translator while out and about.
Challenge yourself and become immersed in an area that makes you struggle to communicate. Do not bring your handy dandy translator, swallow your pride, and be prepared to say poorly pronounced Chinese while desperately trying to buy that hot yam from the street vendor. It will be hard at first but the words learned will stick with you and overtime sound more native and natural.
Branch out from the regular network of friends. It is all too easy to grow comfortable with the fellow laowai, living life in China inside of a bubble. Step out of that, meet some locals, get to know them, make some plans. Learn from them and teach them some things. Trust me you’ll thank yourself for it.
Immersed in China Culture!
The best way to learn about Chinese culture is to get away from your foreigner friends that create the bubble, to experience authentic China that isn’t tourist traps and laowai bar crawls.
Making local friends is the best way to enter into learning about Chinese culture. They can take you to places that only they know and remain unknown to foreigners. To get there, ride a bus where all the old people push and shove to get on only for you to enter last and find half the seats are open, making you wonder why they fought so hard to get on the bus in the first place.
Take a trip to the “villages”, high rises of concrete dark grey apartment buildings with no discernable markings, cut apart by concrete alleyways and asphalt roads. A featureless feat of architecture populated by a bustling of people that fill every corner. 24-hour noodle shops and brightly lit knock off clothing stores.
Explore out farther and find construction pet projects by the wealthy. Little Boston, Little Paris, a massive beautiful park filled with freshly planted flowers and trees out in the middle of nowhere. All of China is filled with these architectural oddities, many of which only the locals know about and can tell you how it got there.
Jumping out of the safety of the foreigner bubble can be overwhelming and quite lonely at first. We have all seen it, the descent into alcoholism by the lonely foreigner trying to cope with the Chinese environment, culture, and language barrier. Everyone should recognize this and try to avoid becoming one at all costs.
For some people, China can be an overwhelming and lonely place. This is mainly due to the language barrier. Just by being social it’s very easy for a foreigner to make friends, but just like all relationships, this takes work. If your Chinese friends invite you to hot pot eating strange parts of the animal, just go, even if you don’t like pig ears and duck colon. More often than not Chinese hospitality means they will accommodate your foreign strangeness. If this does not help then getting out of China before it is too late is strongly advised.
Venture out of the regular social safety and find an adventure untried. Do not fear your awkward clumsy language, it is a gateway to great friends and wonderful experiences. At the end of it, all will be a person thankful they dared to step out of comfort to discover an endless adventure.