Chapter 21: A Foreign Face in Beijing

Western woman meeting the governor of Hangzhou, China
As a foreigner in China, sometimes your "foreign face" is your most useful asset. (Pictured: the company introduces me to the governor of Hangzhou, because I'm the token foreigner.)

Attending the conference in Beijing is the closest I’ll get to feeling like a model — because I’m valued more for my appearance than my intellect. My foreign appearance, that is.

Our company has a booth enviably located near the main entrance and the stairs, guaranteeing just about everyone will pass by. We’ve stacked our tables high with the company’s free manufacturers’ directory — available in exchange for a business card.

Standing behind that table, I want to be more useful than just a face. I help the sales reps unload boxes of directories. I collect business cards, hand out directories, and shake hands, just like everyone else. But in the end, I am still a curiosity, and still largely ornamental — and the attendees can’t help but remind me of it, especially once I speak in Chinese.

“Wow, your Chinese is so good.”

“I didn’t know your company was international.”

“It’s great to see an American here.”

Even the sales reps recognize my symbolic value. During a slow period in the early afternoon, Helen, the sales rep I am rooming with in Beijing, asks me to come with her. “I want you to meet some of my clients.”

In Chinese girl fashion, Helen links her arm around mine, and pulls me down the endless aisles, stopping at her clients’ booths. “This is our foreign expert, Ailin,” she says to them, beaming like a mother proud of her child. We’ll shake hands, smile, maybe even exchange business cards. It’s easy to get lost in Helen’s company, and the experience — because everyone stares at me, as if I am walking down a catwalk.

But in reality, Helen benefits more than I do. Maybe she will leverage these one-time meetings to get her clients to renew their service package with the company. I could just imagine the way she might inject it into the sales pitch: “Don’t forget that we have an American.”

As much as I love helping and working with Helen, and the other sales reps, at the end of the day, I am left with exhausted feet from my heels, and a pile of business cards from people desperately seeking an English teacher, or a foreign face for their business.

In the end, I don’t want to be just another foreign face. I want to be loved and appreciated for who I am — not because I’m a foreigner, but because I’m someone special.

I want John, who will soon join me in Beijing, just before National Day.

Have you ever felt exhausted by being a “foreign face” in China — or elsewhere?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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4 thoughts on “Chapter 21: A Foreign Face in Beijing

  • February 10, 2010 at 7:54 am

    When I visited Guatemala there were several times when my husband asked me to hide around a corner because he didn’t want people to see my “gringa face”. Usually I did this when he needed to buy something or negotiate a deal or price because as soon as they see an American face the prices double. In General Guatemalans love Americans, but they also know that they can get more money out of us. In all the tourist areas there are two prices. One price for Guatemalans and one price for what they call extraneros or foreigners. After a while we started an act where when we were in line he would speak to me in spanish and I would give some sort of response. That routine helped us get the Guatemalan prices a few times despite my “gringa face.” ha ha ha

    • February 11, 2010 at 2:53 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Melissa!

      I can definitely relate to that, because the same thing exists in China. I have had to hide around corners for better prices. But, strangely enough, I’ve actually become a better bargainer than my husband, so it’s usually in my best interest to handle the bargaining (instead of leaving it to my husband).

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  • August 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Once, I was showing around another foreigner who was couchsurfing at my apartment for the week with his girlfriend, and we went to a park. He was a very good juggler and brought juggling balls everywhere with him to amuse himself (and EVERY Chinese person who happened by, who stopped to stare, slack jawed, at this strange foreign guy doing fantastic juggling tricks and singing to himself). So we were watching him juggle and strolling through the park and happened upon a large group of retirees singing and dancing to a brass band that was playing old Russian Red Army songs. It was some sort of celebration for those who’d studied abroad in Russia in the 50’s, I think. Everyone was immediately curious about our group and crowded around us asking questions (which I translated) and watching my friend juggle.

    One guy was holding my attention trying to talk to me about the World Cup, when suddenly I was being pulled onstage along with my friends, and forced into a conga line with my other friends and some of the Chinese folks, while the brass band started playing jingle bells. I’m laughing out loud writing about this debacle, but at the time I was completely mortified. I’m pretty shy and this was possibly my worst nightmare, being pulled onstage like a circus sideshow and forced to dance so as not to appear rude. I guess he’d been dancing with a few of the older ladies and they brought him up on stage, then thought they should grab the rest of us too. After the conga line of shame, they tried to get us to sing, but I made some excuse about having somewhere to be and we ran away. He kept the juggling balls in his pocket for the rest of the day, as I recall.


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