In the Event of Meeting a Foreigner

Leah and David Finish
Dinner at Afrikian
YEREVAN, Armenia
December 15, 2007

This morning I finally sent that article that's been keeping me busy off to the World Vision editors in Beijing. Deadline was today.

The piece evolved as I wrote it. I felt the initial drafts sounded too angry, citing example upon example of language-leech behavior as I've seen it around the Chinese university campus. I decided that probably wasn't the best article to introduce myself as a regular columnist for World Vision, so transformed it into something--dare I say?--positive.

I wanted to hold off on posting the article to my website to coincide with its publication in the January issue, but Leah encouraged me to just post it now. Fair enough, I haven't signed-off exclusive publication rights. I actually haven't signed any contracts at all. What will appear in the magazine will be translated into Chinese. On top of that, the intersection of readers of World Vision and readers of my website must be--at most--some single-digit number, anyway.

The article follows below:

A few months ago I was riding the public bus in Urumqi, the city where I have lived for a little over three years. A young man--around university age--was seated a couple rows ahead of me. From the moment I got on the bus, his eyes kept following me, staring at me as the bus made its way from stop to stop. He continued on staring for a few minutes, then got up from his seat, sat in the one next to mine, and engaged me in a most unpleasant, rapid-fire, one-sided conversation in English.

"You have wife?"

"How old are you?"

"You were away from Urumqi for a long time."

"You live in that old building over there, yes?"

What felt awkward about the situation was not a matter of whether I was in the mood for conversation. It wasn't awkward solely because he had been staring at me for several minutes, it wasn't only because he was sitting uncomfortably close to me, or even that he asked me many questions which westerners would never ask each other. What made me feel the most awkward was his familiarity with my routine, he even actually said that he had been "watching me". He certainly must have been watching for a long while. Most of what he said about me was correct.

I suppose I could give him credit for not breaking one rule of social interaction: at least he did wait for a moment when I wasn't already engaged in a conversation with somebody else. But, as it was clear that he had been observing me around town for at least a year, I found his attention not flattering, but creepy.

I'm happy that people around China are really making the effort to connect and communicate with foreigners such as myself. However, while my ride on the bus may be an extreme example, I've found initial communication between foreigners and locals often falls flat, be it over a chance encounter around town or over an extended trip around the country.

This lack of spark isn't usually owing to some lack of English ability. I believe the underlying reasons are more varied: Cultural norms differ, making for potential problems in approach. Being aware of what to say and just where and when to say it matters a lot. There are certain phrases, certain topics, and certain situations that will enhance the likelihood of a positive reaction when engaging conversation with a westerner who is living in China. None of these behaviors are difficult, but they are so often not observed.

I'd like to present eight tips to help make initial contact with a westerner traveling in China successful. The first half is for everybody, meant for anyone in China who might unexpectedly find themselves in the company of a foreigner. This could occur as some chance encounter: a train compartment shared on a long-distance train, some customer who happens into the shop where you work, or a backpacker dining at the table across from yours at a restaurant some evening.

Advice in the second half is directed specifically to the English learners around China's universities. It's around the university campus and nearby neighborhoods where I am most often approached by people who want to chat with a foreigner. The opening exchanges around university campuses tend to be so similar that they could be following a script. I've listed methods I hope will take conversation a little further, making that first connection the best possible.


  1. Avoid questions about certain subjects

    The line of questioning so many people open conversation with can be found uncomfortable by many westerners. There are certain questions which are considered normal, polite banter when talking with people upon first meeting in China. However, some of these are questions that we would never ask each other in the West. Depending on the question, the person visiting China might find the question unusual--or even find it rude. Below are examples of several such questions I am often asked when first meeting somebody in China:

    These topics don't come up immediately where I'm from. In fact, it's common in the West for even very close friends to not know the exact answer to those first two questions. Marital status will come up fairly quickly, but it's best left to the person discussing their own situation to bring the matter up, rather than enquiring right away as to whether somebody is married.

    In many western societies it's just not considered polite to be so direct about these--among other--topics. Don't worry: most international travelers have perspective, aware that cultural norms vary. People won't usually take offense when asked these questions in China, even if they might take issue back home. So, don't find yourself reluctant to speak with a foreigner out of fear that even the most ordinary of questions might be taken the wrong way. All of the foreigners I know who live in China recognize that people here do not consciously or deliberately pose questions foreigners might find uncomfortable. We laugh it off. However, the conversation is much likelier to continue on well if other opening topics are chosen.

    To be fair, it's not only in China that I am asked this set of questions. In fact, I've found that they're fairly common opening topics for conversation across most areas of the world in which I have traveled: excepting countries in the West.

  2. Don't offer instant praise

    This habit also stems from a difference in cultural perspective--once again, what are considered to be good manners aren't the same everywhere. One of the first things I am often told when first speaking with people in China--usually if we speak in Chinese--is, "You are very clever," or "Your Chinese is very good." I understand that these are meant to be compliments, perceived as polite, encouraging things to say to a visitor in China.

    However, with the exception of addressing young children, compliments are not so freely or quickly given in the West. When these are the first words you hear every time upon meeting somebody new (and you know that your language abilities aren't all that good) they can feel like false praise. I've even heard people say these words to me when I haven't yet spoken a word of Chinese.

    Feel free to offer a foreigner a compliment, but make it an honest one, based on something that truly impresses you about them. If the language abilities of the person you meet aren't really that good, find some other area to comment on.

  3. Dig a little deeper

    I love taking the train across China. Much of the reason I prefer going by rail to flying is the opportunity for longer, more extended conversation. My experiences on the train are generally positive: people share food, make conversation, get to know one another.

    The conversations I enjoy most are those that dig a bit deeper. Of course, initial talk in any society tends to be around neutral, safe subjects, but those same topics could be presented in ways where you'll really share information that is interesting to both parties. I've found myself in so many conversations with people I've met around the planet (as with the first example I gave, this behavior is not peculiar to China) where the person I've met isn't really asking questions, they're making presumptions.

    When you interact with westerners traveling around China, I suggest a more general approach when getting to know them. Rather than framing questions to the foreigner you've met in a manner that includes the answer you expect, leave it open. For example, if the person you talk with mentions that they have just come from Xinjiang, instead of asking, "Did you go to Heaven Lake?", why not ask, "Where did you go in Xinjiang?"

    Rather than asking, "Do you like China?", try asking about what experiences the foreigner has had so far around the country. Where were the best experiences? What was the most unusual? What difficulties have they encountered on the road?

    I suspect that many people who grew up in China will be surprised by which places foreigners perceive as unusual and what experiences they find difficult. Many of the places foreigners find interesting in China might not actually be the places that are not the best-known to Chinese themselves.

    Above all, don't make questions feel like an interrogation. I've met some wonderfully energetic people who really do want to connect and get to know this foreigner who happened to sit across from them on the train. Whatever you choose to talk about, do so allowing the conversation to flow back and forth, alternating between asking real questions that elicit new information from the foreigner and offering up fresh things to share about yourself and the area of China where you live.

  4. Understand Context and Setting

    Certain times and situations are better than others for initiating conversation with a foreigner traveling around China. Most people from China are polite and respectful, but I've often found that some people interrupt, demanding attention upon seeing somebody with foreign features or seeing somebody speaking English.

    If you see a foreigner who appears to be lost in your city, perhaps wandering in circles or constantly looking at a map, that's a great person to approach. He will be grateful that you not only know a few words of English, but that you took the time to offer help and direction.

    If you're sitting next to somebody on the bus or train who is just staring out the window, clearly killing time until arrival, definitely start a conversation with that person, if you're interested in talking yourself.

    However, if there is clearly some other matter at hand, please don't interrupt.

    I think this advice may come as a surprise to many people, as most people already follow it. It would seem so basic. However, an unwelcome interruption comes up in my time here frequently. There have been so many times when I've clearly been preoccupied with some other matter when somebody walks right up and interrupts. I appreciate it when people across China extend a short--or long--welcome to their city or country. Other times it seems that the person just wants to show off a few words of English, ignoring my circumstances.

    Whatever the intent, I'd rather not be interrupted when I'm already having dinner with a friend at a restaurant, deep in study in some public area, chatting with a classmate while walking across town, or clearly engaged in some other activity. Clearly, the times when I am already focusing attention elsewhere I'm less likely to be receptive to some stranger walking up and asking, "Where are you from?"


This second set of suggestions which I give below is written with the students of English at China's universities in mind. Students of English tend to be more focused on acquiring foreign friends, the situations I describe are likelier to happen when meeting students around a university campus than in other settings, such as on a train ride or in a cafe.

Being a foreigner, attending courses at a university in China puts me in an unusual position. Time spent (speaking English) with a native speaker of English such as myself is in high demand. Every day that I walk across the campus of Xinjiang University, I cross paths with thousands of students--many of whom have English textbooks cradled in their arms. As a foreigner, it's common for students to approach me, trying out a few words they've learned in class: asking questions, often pursuing friendship. Many times, students are looking for more than one brief encounter. People I meet for the first time often ask for my telephone number, suggesting from the first minute of conversation that we "become friends".

As I myself have been trying to learn two of China's official languages--Mandarin and Uighur--I can certainly understand the need to find people to practice conversation with. Below are suggestions for finessing approach when first chatting with a foreigner on campus:

  1. Don't try too hard

    There are so many times I've met somebody who wants to demonstrate their familiarity with western culture. Oftentimes people, especially university students, will immediately start bringing western sports teams, TV shows, pop music, or supermodels into the conversation. Normally that would be a great way to keep conversation flowing, trying to establish common ground connecting the two people.

    However, bringing up the topics that many Chinese presume foreigners will be familiar with can sometimes reinforce distance rather than build closeness. Many people here forget that the slice of western popular culture seen in China is a small subset of what trends people in other countries actually follow:

    My advice would be to just relate with the foreigner on campus as you would relate with anybody else. I find the people I get along with best are those who are just being themselves, not immediately bringing up aspirations to study at a western university, familiarity with global pop culture, or other behavior that pegs somebody into a role as "westerner", rather than being just any other person. Just talk about whatever you normally would with local friends.

  2. Don't press too hard for continued contact

    Few of the students I meet around town are interested in having our first conversation also be our last. With many people, it's clear that their premise for initiating contact is the potential for English language practice. I'm not bothered when this is offered as an exchange ("I'll teach you Uighur if you teach me English") but do wonder why so many people leave it at the one-sided, "Give me your phone number and you can teach me English!", without offering any reciprocation.

    At a minimum, I'm usually asked for my phone number, usually coupled with the phrase, "We can be friends". I feel really bad turning people down, especially the times I find those people potentially interesting myself. However, as somebody who has been living in China for the past several years, I already have a full, established life. I sometimes feel that there's not enough time in my life for all the friends I already have in China.

    Please understand if I don't have time for a language exchange, or even a casual friendship. I've found it difficult to be this way in recent years: not giving a chance to people I've met who seem interesting, people who I know I would be close friends with under different circumstances. Unfortunately, I already have an established existence in China. I wish I had an infinite amount of time, but I truly do not have the time to continue relationships with everybody I meet.

  3. Don't appear demanding

    Counter-intuitively, you and I might have a better chance of spending time together in the future if you ask for less. Somebody I've just met will appear less pushy to me if they don't make an immediate request for my phone number.

    If we have met in some informal setting (on the city bus, at a cafe, at a shop, or walking across campus), we've spoken for a few minutes, and you hope to maintain contact, you are welcome to offer me your telephone number. However, if I have not already offered you my telephone number--and I don't do so when you give me yours--please don't demand it.

    This is another situation long-term residents from outside China often find themselves in. Somebody you barely know wants your number, which means--if you give it to them--somebody you barely know will call asking for time or favors. As with the example I just gave, it's not always an issue of whether that person is nice or would make a great friend. It's often about not having enough time. It's awkward to say a direct "no", but it's even more awkward to receive calls from somebody you don't really have the time for.

    I think the best way I've had somebody handle this situation in Urumqi was one evening when I was at my favorite polo (zhua fan) restaurant with a few foreign friends. A woman came up and said something to the effect of, "Excuse me, I've written my name and phone number on this piece of paper. I work in a travel agency and thought that if you could use any direction around town you might like to call." Then she left.

    That was fabulous. It wasn't demanding. It didn't place any expectations on me that I would feel obligated to meet. In all honesty, I never did call her, but I did keep her contact information.

  4. Don't stalk

    That guy who had been observing me for years before he finally cornered me on a bus was an extreme case, but "stalking" happens at some level to most foreigners I know living in China. Sometimes it comes as overly persistent attention from a local student who already has other foreign friends: these types tend to think that every foreigner will want to spend time with him. I've also been pestered by others who repeatedly ask me to teach English--not only to them--but to their other friends as well.

    If the foreigner doesn't show initial interest, don't be persistent with your overtures.

I suspect that the situation in the city where I live, Urumqi, differs from how foreigners are approached in other parts of China. Urumqi is not one of those cosmopolitan cities on China's east coast. There is nothing approaching the community of expatriates employed by western corporations, consulates, and banks that will be found in Shanghai, Guangzhou, or even some of the smaller cities of eastern China. The population of foreigners in Urumqi is small, probably most of the people who come through are transient, petty traders who don't speak much English themselves. Most of the foreigners I see around Urumqi have come here from neighboring countries--Pakistan, Kazakhstan--to buy goods to bring back and re-sell in their home country. I hope that the more familiar presence of foreigners around China's other cities makes for smoother connections with people than what I often experience around Urumqi.

I'd like to emphasize that I do realize that many of the behaviors which I find barriers to successful initial communication are meant as displays of kindness or reflections of interest.

I'll conclude with an easy opening line that I think will be a good start in almost any situation. Before saying anything else, start with, "Hi, would you mind if I talked with you for a little while?"

It's short, polite, and will make most westerners feel comfortable. It will keep them from feeling "cornered", as they themselves will have already agreed to share their time with you. Unless there truly is something urgent, most people I know would respond "yes" to that opening line.

Best of luck for successful communication whenever you next meet somebody exploring your country!