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Foreign Idiots Welcome!

Expatdom has its perks. An abundance of perks, in fact. Cuisine, climate, and the all-encompassing allure of ‘culture’. Find the right place and you can land a cushy job in a cosy place, and have enough cash to splash.

Worldwide, there are opportunities for such experiences, but here in China there’s a cherry to top this already delicious cake; The Chinese are highly tolerant of idiots.

Now, if you do actually happen to be a bonefied idiot, it’s probably best to steer clear of China. There are all kinds of difficulties and problems to overcome, and a dash of common sense really is a must. But even common sense will only get you so far. Like pushing a square through a round hole, any foreigner in China quickly displays a high level of idiocy.

Idiocy, for example, at the dinner table. The ratio of meat to bone is generally unfavourable, various sauces and spices will have you weeping, and your only weapon in the battle is a pair of thin sticks. All the takeaways in the world (the rest of the world) couldn’t prevent you looking an idiot in such situations, red in the face and stabbing at dumplings.


(The phrasebook having failed, I tuck in to ‘some food’ of unknown specification.)

But do the Chinese snub such idiots? Look down on them? Sigh? Nope. They’ll watch with interest, titter a little, and maybe even snap a picture.

Sometimes you’ll be given a spoon. Or a proudly eloquent “How may I help you?” will rise from the crowd. Whatever predicament you land in is never your fault.

(Phil recieves some advice from a helpful local.)

In some way it’s pride. The Chinese way of doing things is so uniquely rich that those trying to infiltrate it hit barriers. A culture so dense as to be unintelligible for foreigners is surely something to be proud of. For all the will in the world, using your Mandarin phrasebook will have listeners in giggle fits long before you can make yourself understood. How funny that this foreigner thinks he can talk like we do.

Idiocy, then, is perfectly permissible, even pleasant.

This unappetisingly odd-looking dish might make a newly arrived foreigner cry.)

I’ve now been in China for a month, and will stay for four more. So far I’ve enjoyed being an idiot. But now I’m honing my chopstick skills, I’ve mastered the pronunciation of a few choice phrases in Mandarin (with a Guangdong provincial accent) and no longer cry over chillies.

I’m discovering something that perhaps even surpasses the enjoyment of idiocy; the pride of acceptance.

When it comes to foreigners, the Chinese are easily impressed. Taking a bus is deemed impressive, as is making any purchase in any shop. Using the phrase “Ni hao” at every opportunity – even when answering a complex question, the meaning of which eluded you completely – often affords you an admiring glow, perhaps even a handshake.

If this is the reaction to such meagre attempts at integration, imagine what further study could bring. Imagine the welcome if you were able to fluently converse the proceedings of a restaurant meal, before polishing off every morsel flawlessly.

At the moment, I enjoy being an idiot here in China. But I look forward with hope to a time when my actions are not merely allowed, but admired.

(And it loves you.)

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