Chapter 26: Hello, Foreigner – and Goodbye, Generosity

Western woman hiding behind a mooncake box
Sometimes, you misunderstand China, or China misunderstands you. And all you can say is, I'm sorry.

As October 2002 went on, I fell deeper in love with my Chinese boyfriend, John, and found a new sense of belonging through lunches with Zhang Bin.

Yet, was I just fooling myself, to think I could masquerade as a local? I am a foreign woman. My face, hair and larger, curvier body made me a curiosity, no matter how standard my Mandarin pronunciation was.

I wasn’t a curiosity to Jason, an old college classmate of John’s that we met during the National Day holiday, on the way to our favorite restaurant near my apartment. I had met John’s xiongdi — “brothers,” or close friends — once before. Ever since then, I loved knowing anyone with a connection to John, and Jason seemed nice enough. We exchanged phone numbers, with the suggestion we might meet for lunch sometime. “I could practice my Chinese with him,” I whispered to John, as we walked in the other direction down the street, after meeting Jason.

Lunch sometime came Tuesday, October 23, when I suggested we dine at a restaurant that specialized in a style of cooking from Dongyang, a city located in central Zhejiang Province. Jason was an English teacher in Hangzhou. He smiled often at dinner, and enjoyed teaching me new words and sayings in Chinese, while I practiced the language of generosity — as I described the generosity of the Chinese people.

“What do you think of the Chinese?” Jason asked. It was a question I heard many times, but one I answered passionately.

“The Chinese are very magnanimous people.” I blushed at my words, wondering if Jason could feel John’s presence in my answer.

My answer seemed to illuminate Jason’s face, as he slipped into teaching mode for a moment. “Magnanimous — that’s a great word choice. So, tell me, how are the Chinese magnanimous?”

As I imagined John and my closest Chinese friends, I easily gushed about extraordinary kindnesses I experienced in China.

But it’s one thing to speak of John and my friends, and another to speak of an entire people. We’re always forced to answer these questions — what do you think of the Chinese people — and how could we ever give an honest answer. If we were honest, we’d say the Chinese are like any other people: some good, some bad. Depending on your experience, or who you know, or where you’ve been, you may know more good than bad — or more bad than good. But it isn’t scientific or absolute. It is only what you know.

What I had known of Jason, through that lunch, was all good. It was easy for me to speak of the things I loved most — China and cultural understanding. I had built up a wonderful persona for Jason of a foreigner who could see beyond appearances, who cared deeply — and Jason liked what he saw. If only I knew that China and cultural understanding would fail me as we wandered the streets after lunch.

“Hello!” shrieked a little Chinese girl beside the road opposite my office building. She covered her mouth, giggling about it with her friends. It wasn’t the first time someone shouted “Hello” my way. If anything, I should have been used to it. But maybe my lunch, or the conversation, made me forget what it was like to be a curious foreigner worthy of stares. I didn’t like to be singled out all the time, to be something unusual. The girl’s greeting also made me forget the perfect persona I had built over lunch, which I surrendered in one sentence.

“I feel like I’m a zoo animal.”

Jason became the teacher once again, but this time with a disciplinary motive.

“How can you say that? You just talked about the magnanimity of the Chinese, but that was not magnanimous.”

I looked at his eyes, their glance slipping from jocular into judgmental, and I knew I was slipping away in his estimation. I didn’t know what to say — but I didn’t have to, because Jason continued for me.

“Many Chinese people use expressions like that because they can’t speak English. They want to communicate with foreigners, but they don’t know how. You should be magnanimous and try to understand them.”

I understood Jason’s meaning. “I’m sorry,” I said, with quiet contrition. But after I returned to the office — and returned to Jason’s censuring speech over and over in my mind — I couldn’t help but wonder if he could ever forgive, or understand me. I’ll never know, because I never saw him again.

I straddled two continents with a Chinese boyfriend, near-fluency in Mandarin, and a growing connection to China — but that’s not something you can see on my face. To the average Chinese, I’m just another foreign woman who doesn’t speak Chinese, or understand the country.

To be sure, I didn’t understand everything — and I probably never would. But I only hoped that, just sometimes, the people could understand me. John did. My close friends — including Caroline, Swallow and Zhang Bin — did. But not Jason.

Did you ever misunderstand the Chinese — or simply feel misunderstood?


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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7 Replies to “Chapter 26: Hello, Foreigner – and Goodbye, Generosity”

  1. I’m really enjoying musing over your writing. It’s fascinating to read from another woman’s words, some of my own feelings and perspectives. Keep on posting; it’s so worthwhile because you are sharing valid insights and posing worthy questions. We foreign wives have such a connection, but such a confusion, I think, when it comes to summing up our husbands’ worlds…

    I’m glad I stumbled upon your website. I’m definitely looking forward to more from you.

    1. Dear Elliot, it’s so nice to see you back around, and thanks for posting. I’m glad the writing resonates with you. And, as an aside, I’m glad to see you’re posting more at your site. I’ve marked it for reading.

      Dear Richard, thanks for sharing, and how fascinating that you’ve also had a similar experience. What you say about the different nationalities is so true in China. Arguably, sometimes even people from different parts of China feel like foreigners when they travel to different provinces. I’ve seen that in my husband, who felt like a foreigner, in some respects, when we lived in Shanghai, because he wasn’t a Shanghainese.

  2. You know, the people in China is unique in many ways. The perception of a foreigner also applies to people of different nationalities of Chinese decent as well, particularly of Cantonese or Hakka decent who have immigrated out of China over 200 years ago.

    As an American of Chinese (Toisanese to be exact) from Ohio, I am also considered as a foreigner. I also get the feeling I’m in a zoo. I am also stared at for long times. It pretty obvious because the way I walk, eat, drink, communicate, and smile. Basically, the vibe I permeate automatically makes me a foreigner. It’s also because my girlfriend is English, blonde, and blue-eyes, we’re treated together as foreigners. At first it was annoying but we realized that the one of the main causation is cultural differences. Realizing the differences allowed us to have a better understanding of the Chinese mainland culture and its people.

  3. Hi Jocelyn, I think maybe you came across my blog, tianjinshannon, recently and I just happened to have a co-worker pass yours along to me the other day! It’s very interesting to read your thoughts about Chinese men/Western women relationships as I am about to enter my own. I’ll keep visiting your site! 🙂

    1. Dear Shannon, I’m touched to find your comment on my blog. I was so excited to come across yours as well, right in the thick of your wedding preparations. Reminded me of the wedding rush I went through (and lots of crazy stories, as I’m sure you have too). Hope we can keep in touch, and continue to support each other! 🙂

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