There is no other place I’d rather be as a foreigner than in China.
After a week of awkward attempts to explain to the local people and Minzu University students that I am not Chinese but a foreigner, I’ve come to realize how important this distinction is. As soon as I clarify that I’m Korean American and a ‘留学生 liu xue sheng’ (study abroad student) from the US, students’ eyes light up with fascination. A series of interesting questions follow: “When did you start learning Chinese? Are you an ‘移民 yimin’ (immigrant in the states)? What do you as an American think about the trade war between China and the US? What do people think of Trump? Do you like him?”
At first, I was overwhelmed and careful in responding to these specific questions (with the exception of the last question to which I answered “No”), especially those that asked for the ‘general’ American perspective. I wasn’t sure if they wanted to start up a heated conversation, and I wasn’t about to dive into one about the trade war over some tasty Beijing duck.
But I soon realized that their questions came from genuine curiosity and a desire to befriend us. It was their way of welcoming foreigners, by showing interest and asking us about our lives. Everywhere I went—restaurants, the school cafeteria, markets, and malls—people were eager to engage with me once they knew I was not from China. When it took me time to order food and buy items, people were more than willing to wait and help me find the words. The ladies at the school cafeteria remembered me and asked how I was, college students explained each dish on the menu to me, and I received faster service at restaurants. I have never been in such a overwhelmingly welcoming community nor have I felt so confident about my ‘Chinglish’ (Chinese & English).
My host family dad says this is part of Chinese culture; being kind to all visitors/guests and offering them help when necessary. No wonder the Chinese have the term “礼让之邦 li rang zhi bang” meaning “courtesy” or “the nation of etiquette and protocol.” On the very first day I met my host family, they took me to the Olympic Park Stadium because they wanted to show me more of Beijing and treat me to a meal. I came back to the dorm incredibly sweaty from walking under 100° weather but hands full with a souvenir, sun umbrella (something almost every Chinese person uses), and snacks that my host fam bought for me.
After only a week in Beijing, I have already experienced the culture of giving, helping, and yielding (except on the roads where pedestrians do NOT come first). If the green light starts blinking, it means you have approximately three seconds to run to the other side.
I am excited for all that I’ll learn in the next 7 weeks!