Lǎowài life – What I’ve Learned Teaching English in China

a chinese fortune cookie

“Lǎowài” is Mandarin Chinese and in slang means “a foreigner”. Some foreigners in China consider this an insulting name (the literal meaning of the word is “an old outsider”) but I personally don’t mind. As my Chinese skills are still very poor after 10+ months living in China it is somewhat comforting to recognize the word ”lǎowài”: you know when people are talking about you.

I came to China almost 11 months ago in December 2014 to teach English in a kindergarten in a small city in the middle of China. I asked the recruitment company to get me somewhere ”authentic, where I could experience the real China”. I Never could have imagined what I eventually got myself in for! I work full time teaching English, but that leaves me a lot of spare time to explore my surroundings. To say the least, teaching English in China has been an interesting experience so far and I would like to share my thoughts on being here.

I’ve learned a few good things while teaching English in China, such as not to expect anything because life can and WILL throw that curve ball and surprise you, China truly is a mixture of all things hilarious, crazy, weird…you can’t quite put your finger on it, how being Caucasian in China can be an insane ego-booster and there are sooo many perks if you decide to work and teach English in China. Below is my take and some observations about living and working in China. Feel free to add to the discussion.

Never expect anything during your time in China

My time in China as a newbie English teacher has been pretty incredible: it’s hard to describe exactly how it makes you feel and what it really is all about. There are many good things about it, but it’s also extremely challenging. Most people, myself included, have no idea what they’re getting in for when they sign up to teach in China for a year. For me it has been a year of cultural shocks, language barriers, frustration (for a foreigner many things in China are made extra difficult), yet also a year of new friendships, completely new, out of this world experiences and the victorious realization that you are managing in a completely alien environment where nothing ever goes as expected.

To teach English in China is a dollop of ridiculous, a table spoon of hilarious, a sprinkle of insane…

Chinese people adore Western culture and adapt some of it into their own culture: the mixture is no less than hilarious! Everyone has iPhones even if it costs an average Chinese person approximately three months’ wages..! Insane, isn’t it! Western designer bags are worn with frilly, bejeweled, lacy, over-the-top clothing which I would simply call Chinese fashion. And then there’s the food – Western food is considered a special, fashionable treat here but the Chinese have twisted it into their own style. Or how would you like some fruit pizza with sweet mayonnaise, “steak” that’s made of ground beef and drowned in black pepper sauce, sweet popcorn, or a hamburger with deep fried sweet chicken filet instead of a beef patty. When I get cravings for something other than Chinese food it means there’s not much help to be found in the nearby restaurants. Lucky I like Chinese food!

White man, the semi-god

Nonetheless the Chinese are enthusiastic about the Western culture and want to adapt it to theirs. That’s right; they don’t want to adapt to it, they want to adapt the Western culture into the Chinese culture. So what is the ultimate Western culture object? Of course a genuine lǎowài, in person. Many times I don’t feel like a person but more like an object, a circus animal. Strangers come up to me, wanting to touch me, talk to me, hug me and sometimes young girls or children tell me that they love me…because I’m a white lǎowài. It blows your mind. To be a white foreigner in China is like being famous. But not the nice way: more like you’re a famous monkey. “Everyone knows the monkey but the monkey doesn’t know anyone” fits perfectly to my existence here.

Like a superstar I get asked to pose in pictures with random strangers I meet; when I leave my house there are strangers everywhere taking me picture without asking my permission; I get special treatment and free goodies occasionally; wherever I go people recognize me and make a fuss. Sometimes I obviously enjoy the perks of being a lǎowài: I love the fact that I’m always the most important person in the room; if I say something people will regard it as pearls of wisdom (I’m not pulling your leg); my opinion always matters; I get asked to speak or perform in events as the star of the day (I’ve learned a lot about performing while in China!) and sometimes companies or private people will offer me free food, drink or service, and of course want me to come work for them.

Perks of living in China

Cost of living– It’s ridiculously cheap to eat out in a restaurant, take a taxi, buy groceries or fly across China! In saying that I have found that many people do try to take advantage of the poor old lǎowài: I get usually asked for triple to price for anything I purchase. It takes time to understand how things work and after that it’s all up to your guts and negotiation skills on how much you will actually pay for the things that have no price tag!

Sober streets-There are no drunks anywhere in public areas! When Chinese people drink it’s only mostly the men and they still behave themselves quite well. No fights, no excess noise or trouble, exactly opposite to what we have in any city in the West. In this way, the Chinese are super civil people! I always feel safe walking down the streets no matter what time of the day or night it is.

Corruption-A two bladed sword since if you have money or influential friends, there are no limits to what you can do. Or just fake it! For many foreigners it works well: if they don’t have the requirements or the experience to get a job they want, they can just make something up and/or fake certificates. Golden!

Work benefits-Usually your employer would want to treat you very well because you are the lǎowài employee and very important for the company. I am the only lǎowài working for my school so I get taken out for free lunches, dinners, they organize little trips to entertain me and in general all my colleagues try to make my life as comfortable as possible here. It doesn’t hurt to be a nice person either: I get told frequently that people are so nice to me because I’m such a lovely person to everyone. A smile goes a long way! In fact, if you plan on teaching English in China, learn how to smile!

Ego boost-People will tell you constantly how beautiful you are because you’re so white! Coming from Scandinavia my skin is super white, my hair quite long and naturally blonde so people are always complimenting me on my beauty. It feels nice, especially since sometimes you feel like a fat giant compared to the size 0, petite Chinese people!

All in all life as a lǎowài is always anything but boring in China. It’s safe to say that to be a lǎowài in China is a special thing. In both good and bad. After a while you will start taking the Chinese oddities as a somewhat “normal” way of life. The biggest problem might prove to be that the good old Western life could possibly seem rather dull and mundane after the Chinese lifestyle. If you are going to teach English in China, you should take my experiences into consideration.