在英国读书生活的我经常会听到外国人对我说这句话，尤其当知道我是中国人之后。“你好”对于外国人来说，应该就像中国人最初接触英语时学会的“hello”，而“hello”这个词在中文里已经也演变成了打招呼的一个口头禅，它也早有了自己的中文版本——“哈喽”。当我在欧洲、澳洲或亚洲其它国家旅游时，听到其他国家的人和我说“你好”，总是让我感到亲切——外国人在对我表示友好，他们在努力试着说出仅有的几个中文词比如“谢谢”“再见”时，我们中国人都会觉得非常可爱——他们在尝试了解中华文化呢！所以在中国人眼里，外国人——尤其是西方人，只要他们能说出超过两句或两个中文词组，他们一定会得到中国人的称赞——“你的中文太好了”“Wow, you know Chinese!”这是为什么呢？
(Chris, 我, Jeff, Mia 在爱丁堡）
I heard this greeting quite often after arriving in the UK to continue my studies, especially after people learned that I was Chinese. For people outside China, saying “nǐhǎo” is similar to how we begin learning English through “hello.” In China, however, “hello” has already evolved into a common greeting that young people sometimes use among one another. It even has its own Chinese version: “hālóu”!
People have also said “nihao” to me as I've traveled through Europe, Australia, and Asia. I always feel touched to hear that familiar greeting outside China. When traveling abroad, I see “nihao” as an expression of friendliness. When a non-Chinese makes a sincere attempt to use some simple phrases, like “xièxiè” (“thank you”) or “zàijiàn” (“goodbye”), we think of it as very sweet—they're trying to understand China's culture! In China, if a foreigner—especially a Westerner—is able to speak more than a few words of Chinese, they'll inevitably be met with enthusiastic praise: “Wow, your Chinese is great!”
But why is that?
In comparison to Europe, the Americas, and Australia, China has spent most of its history isolated from the rest of the world. With the notable exception of the Yuan dynasty, which was established by the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan, massive influxes of foreign peoples into China's borders are historically all but unheard of. As a result, the core of China's cultural and ethnic identity has been preserved throughout its history. After several centuries of trade with the West, it was only the outbreak of the First Opium War, in which the United Kingdom invaded the Chinese mainland, that led to a general popular awareness of foreigners in China: Who are these people with blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin? Why are they so different from us?
In those days, the Chinese saw foreigners as the embodiment of terror and evil. Most ordinary Chinese never had the opportunity to see a living, breathing foreigner inside their own village. Following the end of the Second World War, China and the rest of the world developed in relative peace, and the nation's anti-foreign mentality gradually weakened with each subsequent generation. This transition accelerated rapidly in the 1990s thanks to the popularization of the Internet, which helped to increase the world's awareness of different parts of the globe as well as the existence of cultural differences. America's status as the world's dominant superpower also led to the spread of English-language culture around the world; in this regard, China was no exception.
In China's major cities, Westerners are no longer seen as exotic rarities. However, owing to the singular nature of China's history and traditional culture, as far as most Chinese are concerned, foreigners only exist within the confines of a computer monitor, television screen, or movie theater. Better-funded schools may employ foreign teachers to teach spoken English, and foreigners will sometimes come to China's more remote and impoverished regions to assist with teaching duties.
If young people in China spot a foreign tourist walking down the street, most will be too intimidated to strike up a conversation. One reason behind this is the national character ingrained in most Chinese: reserved, concerned with saving face, and afraid of saying the wrong thing. A second reason is the overemphasis China's English-language education places on written exams, which has the unfortunate side effect of leaving its students woefully unequipped for face-to-face encounters with English speakers. As a result, it's common for people in the majority of China's urban and rural areas to view foreigners as “outsiders.”
Western nations, on the other hand, have long histories of trade and cultural exchange. Historical trends of immigration and even slavery have made people in Europe, Australia, and the Americas accustomed to seeing people of different colors and ethnic backgrounds. Contemporary Western cultures emphasize equality among all people, and any behavior that falls under the umbrella of “racial discrimination” meets with harsh opposition and criticism.
But in China, racial discrimination is not seen as a social issue the way it is in Western countries. For instance, 92 percent of mainland Chinese belong to the majority Han ethnicity, and it is important to note that in China, the nation's various ethnic groups (the official total is 56) are all considered to belong to the same race. Most Chinese have never interacted much, or at all, with someone from another race. Regional biases, however, are common in China, as many Chinese end up moving to different provinces for work-related reasons—but this is another matter altogether. Whether in work or life in general, Westerners typically attempt to minimize perceived differences and seek common ground in their interactions with others. To say that someone is different or special, or to treat someone differently from someone else, can be perceived as a form of discrimination.
Recently I attended the Edinburgh International Arts Festival with two American friends of mine who happen to be brother and sister. They were born to a Caucasian father and Korean mother, and their features are noticeably Asian; however, having grown up in the United States, their mindsets are distinctly American. When I was walking with the sister, Mia, a car drove by. “Nihao!” the driver and passenger called out, both of them smiling. Thinking this was very sweet of them, I smiled back. Mia, however, was angry. “They have no respect for other people!” she exclaimed. I was stunned. From my perspective, the people inside the car had simply been saying hello. I hadn't perceived any malice behind their actions. Mia, on the other hand, felt discriminated against. “They shouldn't assume you're Chinese just because you look different,” she explained, “and they shouldn't treat you differently because of that.”
My thought process was different, though. I've come to the UK, I thought, and I actually am Chinese. Sometimes the locals would assume I was Korean or Japanese and attempt to greet me as such, but I would just interpret these interactions as attempts to understand Asian culture and to be more hospitable towards me. How could that be considered discrimination? If a non-Chinese attempts to speak Chinese to me when I'm abroad, as long as they aren't trying to insult me or laugh at me, why should I take offense? I would find it very sweet, and most Chinese would also feel the same way. But if the inverse happened to a Westerner, they would probably feel angry.
This is one reason why some people in English-speaking countries are hesitant to praise foreigners for their English-language skills. To them, this could be perceived as a sort of prejudice, a reminder that this person is an outsider—although it should be noted that this isn't the case with all English speakers. For example, many people who come to the UK from Germany to the Netherlands already speak excellent English, and sometimes just as well as native Britons. In this context, it would be odd for a native English speaker to complement these foreigners on their language skills. For one thing, it could be seen as patronizing, as these people likely need no reminder of their English fluency. It would also emphasis their “otherness.” Additionally, most people in English-speaking countries expect foreigners (particularly those visiting their country) to be able to speak English. To the contrary, people in China assume that foreigners cannot speak Mandarin.
My experience in Edinburgh wasn't the first time I witnessed the stark contrast in perspectives between Chinese and Westerners regarding this issue. My husband, Chris, is British. When we met in Shanghai, he had already been living in China for over a year. Despite being able to speak Chinese, he had never been truly immersed in Chinese culture, and he would constantly tell me about the different treatment a foreigner received in China:
“We can't stand it when we're called 'lǎowài' or ‘wàiguórén' [Chinese terms meaning 'foreigner']. That's discrimination!”
“People in China just assume that we can't speak Chinese. We say a simple 'nǐhǎo,' and they freak out!”
“The people here talk about me when I'm clearly in earshot. They think I can't understand them!”
This isn't simply a matter of the differential treatment that people in China reserve for individuals from other countries. In fact, the differences in treatment become more pronounced when dealing with people of different skin colors.
Chris once told me about an experience he had in Shenzhen while traveling with a Japanese friend of his. While at a restaurant, he told the waiter his order in Chinese. The waiter, however, was too startled to respond. He turned to Chris's Japanese companion and kept asking, “What's this foreigner saying?”
Chris then replied to the waiter in Chinese: “She's from Japan; she doesn't speak Chinese. Just talk to me!”
Flustered, the waiter repeated his earlier question to the one person at the table with Southeast-Asian features, not daring to say a single word to her blonde-haired, blue-eyed companion. In the end, the manager had to come out to resolve the situation.
From this experience, one can see how typical it is for Chinese to group Westerners from those with features more similar to their own—namely, people from Japan and South Korea. In comparison to the later group, people from China will feel a more prominent sense of distance when it comes to Westerners. So is China's natural tendency toward “exclusivism” a positive or negative thing?
To someone born and raised in China, it's perfectly normal to be viewed and treated as a foreigner while abroad. It's also a strong compliment to tell someone that they look foreign or of mixed race. These remarks would be directed at someone with deep-set and double-lidded eyes, an aquiline nose, and pale skin. Countless plastic surgery advertisements have proudly promised to “make you as beautiful as someone of mixed race”—something that certainly would not go over well in Western countries. People in China like being different from other Chinese; they enjoy being special, being unique. For instance, when choosing an English name, they will try to find one noticeably different from the names others have chosen. They may even create their own, like Angelababy, the famous Chinese actress, model, and singer.
In China, no one wants to be just like the rest of the crowd. We're glad when we're little different from everybody else overall. Education is another factor. We're taught from a young age to strive to be the first, and we're constantly compared to our peers by both our schools and our parents. Time after time we're told, “Don't settle to be average! You have to stand out from everyone else!”
But what about in the West? Despite the strong tradition of individualism in Western cultures, parents and teaching authorities make special efforts to protect their children's mental health and self-esteem. Final exam grades are kept private, and awards are given for simply participating in events. Many parents give their children a fair amount of freedom in their decision-making, as they believe that all individuals should be given equal opportunities to grow. And while children in Western cultures are generally encouraged to find their own identities, it's just as true that most of them dislike being labeled as “different.” When one compares Chinese and Western educational systems, it would be disingenuous to say that one way is more “right” than the other. However, the ways that these cultures understand and react to the concept of the “other” have been shaped by various factors such as those described above.
When Chinese address Westerners with terms that mean “foreigner,” like “lǎowài” or “wàiguórén,” they see it as a way of being friendly. While most Westerners initially feel uneasy to hear themselves addressed as such, the vast majority of Chinese are simply unaware of this. Complicating this is the fact that many Westerners are too polite and respectful to tell Chinese people that they feel this way, at least at first. After talking to many of my friends from China, I found that only those who had studied in the West, learned about Western culture, or become close friends with Westerners were aware that Chinese and Westerners have slightly different understandings of the colloquial Chinese word for “foreigner,” “lǎowài.” The majority of Chinese believe that “lǎowài” is a neutral term, and many of them even see it as a positive one or a cute nickname.