Three Things that Chinese People Find Funny about Foreigners
“Wo shi meiguoren” (I am American). This sounds pretty foreign, right?
I never imagined I would be surrounded by Chinese characters. That is, until I moved to Changsha, Hunan, China to become a volunteer Oral English teacher with an organization called WorldTeach. I knew no Mandarin whatsoever. After a few weeks of Chinese classes courtesy of the organization, I moved out into the suburbs where I stumbled through Mandarin Chinese just to converse with someone…anyone.
Through these experiences, I would like to pass along wisdom and prepare you, reader, for laughter. Get ready! The following are a handful of common things that Chinese people find funny about foreigners:
Facial Expressions and Body Language
One of the biggest culture shock experiences I had once living in China involved facial expressions. My facial expressions run the gamut, and often explain half of what I am trying to say. This is not the Chinese way.
When I go out into the streets to talk with some locals, I do not hold back. My facial expressions are abounding. They slide from happiness to confusion in one sentence. Somewhere in the middle, the local talking with me will break into laughter. Even if my point concerns something serious, my new acquaintance will find my countenance humorous.
When I first arrived, I felt offended. Even if I could explain my feelings in Chinese, I doubt whether it would have made sense to the person. After many experiences, I built up a shared sense of humor. The Chinese are not accustomed to seeing someone express themselves so visually in a conversation. Since most of the time I only know how to converse in body language and facial expressions, every attempt at talking makes for an impromptu comedy skit for both me and the local alike.
My piece of advice is: don’t get upset! Use all the facial expressions and body language you want, and have fun with it like the locals do.
Watching You Attempt to Speak Chinese as You Mispronounce Tones
Any Chinese person I have met finds few things more enjoyable than watching me try to speak Chinese. My eyes roll up to the sky to ponder what the next word in my sentence should be. My hands make small circles and then enter a shrugging pose. All of this causes an eruption of laughter from my audience. As I struggle through understanding, I laugh and freak out. So does my conversational partner.
One of the things that really amps up the giggles is the tone of my voice. Since Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, mispronouncing the tone of a word can mean the difference between you saying the number “four” and you saying the word for “death.” Do not be discouraged, though! Through your tones, facial expression, and body language, people will understand that you are learning the language. They tend to be forgiving.
Now, if you are anything like me, you rely heavily on tone when speaking English. As a huge fan of sarcasm, there are moments where the use of tones in English slurs with the tones of Mandarin. Out of your mouth comes this messy conglomeration of mispronounced words in English and Chinese – Chinglish. You cannot control it, and it just keeps flowing out of your mouth because you are trying very hard to talk to the person in front of you. Laughter erupts. At the end of it all, you use a handy Chinese phrase to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” and walk away with a smile on your face.
My piece of advice here: do not hold back.
Taking Photos with Locals
Locals love to take pictures of or with foreigners. The more foreign your look, the more common this will be. Foreigners, it’s your chance to shine. Take note – always be respectful and don’t overdo it. If you leap over hedges to join the locals beckoning you to come over and take a picture with them at the national park, then you are being ridiculous. For the most part, however, there are plenty of opportunities for photo taking as locals will spot you, giggle about you with their friends, and then turn around really quickly and snap a picture.
At some point in time, you may start to feel frustrated that your privacy is not your own. This does not have to be the case. Strike a pose! Say something in response! Invite them to take a photo with you! (Be warned – you may be taking photos for quite some time if others see you’re inviting.) Flash a smile, share a laugh, and enjoy the moment – you’ll only have them for so long.
My piece of advice here: be prepared!
There are plenty of things you may find humorous about China, but China finds these things humorous about you, traveler. Enjoy it! Bask in it! Remember that all of the adventures are right in front of you, so take on the day with a smile.
Photo credit: Vlad Meytin