Chapter 19: Only Mandarin-Speaking Foreigners Belong in China?

Western woman sitting with Chinese graduates.
Are Mandarin-speaking foreigners the only ones who can integrate into China? Or will foreigners always be foreigners no matter what (and stand apart from the crowd)?

Even in a city as large as Hangzhou — with over 6 million people — it’s hard to escape your past. My ex-Chinese boyfriend Frank still sat next to me at work in the Chinese Internet company. And far across the West Lake sat remnants of my ex-life in Hangzhou, when, in 2001, I endured four months in an international NGO struggling to be a technical writer.

I wanted to leave that place behind, because, like Frank, it left me with painful memories. A dictatorial Chinese director who blocked me from doing the writing I was hired to do. A European roommate who harassed and humiliated me, in an effort to drive me away from our coworkers. Poor facilities, from the broken washing machine to the dank, windowless basement kitchen filled with crickets. The only thing I could be proud of was that I managed to survive for four months.

So when Camille — a new European volunteer at the NGO — got in touch with me, it was like getting a call from an ex that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to talk to again.

But I did end up talking with her. We had been introduced by a mutual contact from an American NGO that I respected. With John, my Chinese boyfriend, in Shanghai, I had room in my life for friends, even new ones like Camille. And, of course, it wasn’t fair to assume that she would become another painful memory. After all, we did have a lot in common.

“I spent a year in Taipei on scholarship, studying Chinese,” she mused one evening with me, as we walked through the grounds of Zhejiang University after dinner. “That’s where I met Zhang.”

I turned to her with fascination. “Wow, you had a Chinese boyfriend too?”

Camille beamed. “We spent most of that year together. It was incredible.” She sighed.

“So what happened?”

“I was leaving Taiwan, and didn’t know if I would ever return. In the end, Zhang just couldn’t wait for me. So, we broke up.”

I didn’t know what to say, and all that came out was: “I’m sorry.”

The conversation continued, yet I couldn’t help but wonder how that loss impacted Camille’s perspective, especially when we got on the subject of living in China.

I told Camille about my harrowing experience at the NGO she now worked for. “It was a difficult time,” I confessed. “But the one thing that brought me pleasure was the China outside the NGO. Eating noodles on late-night noodle carts. Talking with locals. Making friends. Learning Chinese.”

“Well, that’s easy for you to do.”

I turned to Camille, wondering what it was I had said that got her attention. “What do you mean?”

“You’re one of the foreigners here who speaks good Chinese. It’s easier for you to integrate into life in China.”

“So, you’re saying that it’s impossible to feel comfortable in China without speaking standard, fluent Mandarin?”

“In Mandarin skills, there are some foreigners who are ‘haves,’ and some who are ‘have nots.’ The ‘have nots’ feel isolated. You happen to be a ‘have,’ so it’s hard for you to understand.”

I didn’t want to believe her words. I wondered if they symbolized a disappointment on her part — that her Chinese wasn’t good enough, even after her study in Taiwan. Or represented the difficulty she had in acclimating to life in mainland China.

On the other hand, how could I understand the opposite experience when I spoke fluent Chinese?

The thing is, I did. I spoke no Chinese when I first came to China. I struggled with the typical annoyances foreigners encounter — from the constant stares and the Hellos, like cat-calls, shouted at me on the street, all the way to the fear of speaking a language that existed more in my hand-held dictionary than my mind. And, in truth, I didn’t feel entirely at home in my life in Henan Province. Maybe that’s why I went back to the US to work for a year.

In the end, I came back to China after that year-long break. It wasn’t a comfortable choice. And it didn’t make me feel comfortable at first — especially with my experience at the NGO. But it became comfortable with time.

I didn’t know if Camille would ever feel like she belonged in China. I’m not even sure if I “belonged” in China. But I knew one thing — John and I belonged together, in China.

Do you agree with Camille — that only foreigners who speak excellent Chinese can truly feel integrated, or a sense of belonging, in China? Or are we always outsiders, no matter how good we speak?


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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15 thoughts on “Chapter 19: Only Mandarin-Speaking Foreigners Belong in China?

  • February 4, 2010 at 4:13 am

    I think Camille has a point. I know that life in China opened up for me in many ways once my Mandarin improved. In my case, I had learned Mandarin for a few years in college before coming here for the first time, and then studied it in college some more when I returned to the States, so I never really had that experience of being completely helpless and understanding nothing. However, I’ve seen my parents and recently my brother in China and they speak nothing, no Chinese whatsoever, and it is more difficult for them. They were scammed, for instance, by a pedicab driver near the Forbidden City and paid 600RMB for a 2 block ride on a pedicab. That never would have happened if they’d spoken the language and could argue effectively. Not speaking the language made 2 guys, big strong guys, fearful and succeptible to intimidation.

    That said, I know expats who have lived here for many many years on very basic Chinese and they seem to do ok. They love China and have found their own niche here. Is there a China that is closed off to them though? I’d say definitely. If you’re unable to carry on an intelligent discussion with non-English speaking Chinese people then surely you’ll be viewing China from a different perspective. I imagine it would be the same living in America and speaking no English. The America you would get to know would be very different from many of us know. I won’t use the terms “real China” or “real America” but surely it would be a different perspective.

  • February 4, 2010 at 4:46 am

    I think if you don’t have the language ability, it’s easier to feel lonely and/or helpless. But I know plenty of non-Chinese speakers who love China, either because they have a big group of foreign/English-speaking friends or they have a Chinese significant other to help or they have a lot of money and don’t ‘need’ to speak Chinese.

    My pretty decent Mandarin certainly makes it easier for me to meet people. But there have been many times when I have felt so incredibly lonely, because as good as my Chinese is, there are some things I don’t know how to talk about, some things I can’t express, so many things that get lost in translation–especially sarcasm, one of my most notable traits.

    So really, I think it depends on your personality and your luck. If you think that your Chinese prohibits your having a good time in China, then it will, because you won’t try.

  • February 4, 2010 at 4:54 am

    Interesting question, but what is your opinion? Do you feel at home in China? Or, do you feel, despite speaking Mandarin fluently, that you are still considered an outsider? Oh, and another question: how long did it take you to learn Chinese? Got any advice? I’m still struggling with the language, but I feel like the only way to really learn it, is to live in a Chinese speaking country…(and that’s not the case for my right now) What do you think?

    • February 4, 2010 at 3:35 pm

      Dear Jessica,

      Thanks for the comment! Good perspectives on both sides of the issue, each with their own merits. It is definitely true that if you don’t know good Chinese, though, you’ll always have a limited perspective of what China is.

      Dear Ellis,

      Thanks for sharing! There is something to be said for personality (and luck too). I can totally understand the sense of loneliness in China, even with good Mandarin skills — there are parts of you that don’t always translate, even if you wish they did!

      Dear Ellen,

      Thanks for weighing in (and prodding me to answer the question that I skirted myself — ha!). I would have to say I generally feel at home in China — especially because I have a home I can return to there. Going to China is like a homecoming for me, and it has become more comfortable over the years, as my language skills have improved, and my friendships there increased.

      That said, I also have the feeling of being an outsider, even when I’m at my inlaws’ home — because it is in the countryside, and I am an oddity, so I easily attract attention, stares and curiosity. There are times in China when I don’t always want the attention, but it is inevitable and you get used to it. I recognize that is something I will have to face my entire life in some way, as long as I visit or live in China.

      So maybe I feel like a little bit of both — but falling more on the side of feeling at home in China. 😉

      As for the language advice, I’ll send you an e-mail with some of my thoughts — I’m happy to share.

  • February 4, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I would say there are degrees of belonging. My Chinese has degenerated over the years, yet I still feel a sense of belonging because of friends and relatives who live there as well as my familiarity and comfort with China. That said, I will always be an outsider (and I think all foreigners will be) to some degree, probably to a larger degree than if I had kept up my language skills.

    • February 5, 2010 at 7:18 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Susan! You’re right that, to a degree, language will always impact our sense of belonging in China.

  • February 5, 2010 at 2:57 am

    It’s interesting that Camilla said you “happened to be a ‘have'”, as if you were born with your Mandarin skills or inherited them from a wealthy relative. In fact it’s pretty much a matter of dedication and hard work. I would agree that life is easier in China if you speak the language, and everyone has the power to make that happen.

    • February 5, 2010 at 7:22 pm

      Hi Melanie, thanks for weighing in.

      Yes, the idea of “haves” versus “have nots” was odd to me at the time. I think, to some extent, she must have been frustrated because, even after all of that time she spent in Taiwan, her Chinese wasn’t where she wanted it to be.

  • February 5, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Looking forward to that mail, Jocelyn! Thanks in advance!

  • February 5, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Interesting, intriguing story, especially the “haves/have nots” distinction. I’m inclined to agree with all the commenters.

    I would also say that although we are all born with an innate ability to learn languages, we all have naturally varying degrees of ability with language. I will not pass judgement on somebody I’ve never met, but I can only assume that your friend Camille hit a point of frustration with her Mandarin learning that she was not, for whatever reason, able to overcome.

    I would agree that learning Mandarin is really important to settling and integrating here, and for that (and other) reasons, I strongly encourage all my new colleagues to learn the language. Having said that, I long since resigned myself to being permanently a foreigner (at least, so long as I’m in China). My theory is that it has something to do with the age of the country. I noticed a similar attitude when I was in Norway – this is our land. You are welcome, so long as you don’t forget your place as a guest on our land. Fair enough. The people I was staying with in Norway could trace their history in that county back several hundred years, to the point of being able to point out the original family founding father’s farm. My wife’s family traces their presence in their village in the mountains northwest of Beijing back to an ancestor who, in the early Ming, loaded each of his two sons into a bucket each, slung them from a carrying pole on his shoulder, and trudged off from The Great Scholar Tree of Hongtong County and walked over the mountains, in one of the several waves of migration out of southern Shanxi organised by the Ming government. I, on the other hand, come from a country founded by immigrants – even most Maori can trace their ancestors back to the particular canoe they arrived on about 1000 years ago. It seems natural to me that countries like mine, founded on immigration, would be more accepting of new immigrants integrating into society than countries with histories as long as Norway or China.

    As for feeling at home in China, I’m inclined to ask what home is? I’ve lived in China 10 years, and I’m about to take my wife on her first trip to New Zealand (and my first trip “home” in 7 years) one week from tomorrow. Last time I was there, I didn’t feel any more “at home” than I do in Beijing – indeed, I felt slightly foreign. And yet, something keeps pulling me back to my native island…. I have to admit to feeling a little nervous about this trip….

    Please forgive the over long comment. I would like to end it with a question: Rural Chinese hospitality is really hard to beat, isn’t it?

    • February 7, 2010 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Chris. No worries on the length — I enjoyed reading it.

      Your theory on the age of the country definitely makes a lot of sense, as does your point about where “home” really is, especially if you’ve left yours for a while. I can definitely relate, having spent little of the last 15 years in Cleveland, Ohio — my own hometown (and, like yourself, I often do feel a bit nervous and out of place when I return).

      On rural Chinese hospitality, I will second that! Whenever I return to the countryside with my husband, the outpouring of warmth is overwhelming.

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  • June 7, 2016 at 3:15 am

    I think everyone going to a different country for a longer period of time will feel either isolated or partially integrated, depending on their language skills and how different they look from the locals.

    Most people living in Romania are either ‘white’ or Rroma people [aka gypsies]. People of East Asian or African origin are something ‘exotic’ here and are likely to be started at, but we generally don’t care. There are some people meeting these characteristics and are a 2nd generation immigrants now, speak perfect romanian and have no issues.. even white people who would be considered ‘have-nots’ by Camille [language wise] seem to do just fine here, but can get ripped off easier [they’re generally wealthy and don’t seem to care].

    Foreigners would feel like outsiders more in a racist country, i believe.


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