Wàiguórén family dinner: how I preserve my identity while living abroad

Guest post by Nikki

nikki black girl in china-2My name is Nicole, or Nikki to my friends. But, every day for the last 15 months, my name has been 外国人 (Wàiguórén) — “Foreigner.”

In America, I was the oldest sister to three brothers. I was the only girl in my immediate family. I was the girl who would dance whenever and wherever decent music was playing. I was the chick at the bar all by her happy self, reading a book while drinking beer. I was the girl who cut off her hair because she was tired of combing it. And who locked her hair for the same reason. I was the girl who went pale at the thought of starting a conversation with a complete stranger (and for a rather dark-skinned African-American, that’s a feat).

But here in China, my identity has come down to one word. Wàiguórén. Foreigner. Outsider. One who does not belong.

It’s a little off-putting.

I’m now the one who gets stared at when having a conversation with someone. I’m now the one who draws gasps when she walks into a room. I’m the one who constantly hears “Oh, my god!” and “oh my Lady Gaga!” while walking down the street. I’m the one who can stop a conversation in its tracks just by walking by. (I mean, I’m kind of cute, but really?)

But I’m also the one who, every few weeks, hosts a family dinner.

I look up recipes I want to try (I love experimenting on people, hehehe). Go grocery shopping. Clean up (probably for the first time since the last family dinner). And cook up a huge amount of food. I invite a bunch of my fellow Wàiguórén, and we all sit around the living room with music playing in the background and eat and laugh and drink and talk. Overall, pretty typical dinner party.

For me, and I think for many of us, those family dinners are a safe space. A place where we can curse and gripe and complain, where we can listen to punk and R&B and garage, and rock, and metal, and old-school rap. Where we can eat some foods we miss at home. Where we can be who we were at home. Who we are inside.

Where, even if we’re from several different countries, we aren’t foreigners. We’re, for lack of a better word, us.

We share stories of how we’re fucking up at teaching. How we’ve gotten through to a kid who has no interest in learning English. How we want to leave ASAP. Why we stay anyway. And the ultimate question — how can we be better teachers?

Because, in the end, that’s who we are. We’re teachers. We love teaching. We love the English language. We love it when a kid runs up to us on the street and calls us by name. We love it when someone comes up to us on a street and tries to have a conversation — an actual conversation! — with us in English. Even if every other word is mispronounced and the grammar is atrocious, we don’t care. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re here in China.

We may be wàiguórén, For the entire time we’re here. But we’re also 老师. Lǎoshī. Teacher.

Hi, my name is Nicole Lǎoshī. I’m an English teacher in China. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. But it’s who I am. For now.

Comments on Wàiguórén family dinner: how I preserve my identity while living abroad

  1. I’ve had so many friends go to China (and elsewhere in Asia) to teach English. This echos a lot of their stories.
    So nice to hear about someone else who’s thriving teaching English overseas!

  2. Been there, done that, used the same pictograms, only for “gaikokujin” in Japan. I think being the “outsiders” in a strange world can bring the community closer. We did dinners, shared a library of used English books, cooked home dishes and commiserated. I loved my time in Japan, not just as a teacher, but in other occupations.

  3. This brings back memories of when I taught English in France. My roommates were also teachers, one from Mexico and one from Italy (teaching their respective languages). Prior to my time in France, my experience with family-type dinners were few and far between (or long in the past). Most of the time, I resented my roommates’ insistence that we eat dinner together each night (me, the stereotypical independent American!), but we talked about many of the same things you describe, and in the long run it probably helped me keep my sanity.

  4. Hi, Nikki!

    I’m not an expat English teacher anymore, but I was! We’ve made the complete plunge into expat life by becoming small business owners here in Indonesia. (I think we might be insane.)

    The word for foreigner here is ‘bule’, which translates literally to ‘albino’, but it’s pretty much a catch-all term for foreigners.

    We live in a ‘local’ neighborhood (very few other expats here) and we’ve been in this ‘hood for around three years now, so we don’t get many ‘HELLO MISTER!’ shouts anymore — we’re old news.

    I am always painfully aware, however, of how little anonymity I have. Everywhere I go, I am noticed. Everyone knows my name and where I live and who my friends are and where I shop and … every little detail of my life.

    It’s almost like being a celeb, stalked by fans and paparazzi, but without the perks. (Where’s my celebrity paycheck?!)

    Most days I don’t really notice it anymore — I have taken to the misguided belief that everyone is just really friendly. (What? Your gas station attendants don’t know you by name? 😉 ) But when I go to a different ‘hood, one where my foreign face is a surprise, the stares and comments and hollers get pretty old pretty fast — especially since we can speak fluent Indonesian and understand everything they’re saying. (Which isn’t always polite, at least not as we would consider it in the States.)

    We’ve been here five years now and are here for … the foreseeable future. It is a little disheartening to know that no matter how assimilated we become, how much we become a part of the local life and culture and community, we will ALWAYS be bules.

    In other expat news: where are you in China? One of our closest friends here is from Meixian in Guangdong. We’re planning on visiting her hometown and province in June. Since living in Indonesia, we’ve been to Taiwan and Hong Kong and Macau, but still not to mainland China — mostly because we don’t want to be bothered with the visas! 🙂

    Let’s talk!

    • Hi Sam!

      I’m in Wanzhou, in the province of Chongqing. I’ve been to very few places in China, mainly because my work schedule is such that I’m only off when EVERYONE is traveling (Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, etc.), and the crowds are absolutely insane. LOL, you are SO right about being stalked by the paparazzi! I have had my picture taken so many times while grocery shopping, it’s crazy.

      I’ve actually had a mental block to learning Chinese because of some of the racial slurs that are used toward/about foreigners – it’s taken me over a year to try again. I’m sure that most comments are completely innocuous, but considering I was NEVER called the “N” word until coming here…well, I think you can see why I’m a little reluctant.

      However, it really has been a great experience. One of my fellow teachers just got married to a local woman, and the ceremony was beautiful. We’ve made some really good friends here that are local, so that’s a huge plus. So many people want to help you learn Chinese, or want to talk with you in English so they can practice – it’s awesome!

      (BTW, in case anyone is interested, the local dialect is Wanzhouhua, as opposed to Putonghua – the common language, or Mandarin. That’s why I say “learn Chinese” as opposed to “learn Mandarin” – which dialect you learn depends on who you is teaching you!)

      • Nihao fellow Laowai!

        I was so ecstatic to read the title to this article. I’ve taught English in China also. It sounds like you have a wonderful group of people there, and I am so impressed with you having group dinners. It sounds like a nice way to decompress and feel like yourselves.

        I taught in Hubei province just down the river from Wuhan in 2009 and was also ay happy to see a foreign face.

        I hope you get to travel some while you are there. I am planning on going back again because I didn’t travel much for the same reasons (not a fan of crowds).

        I miss it there. I hope you are enjoying it, even though I know it can be infuriating sometimes.

        Thanks for writing this post, as it was super exciting to see this post, and made me reminiscent of teaching there.

        I’d love to hear more from you if you have the chance.

  5. On a certain level, I know what you mean: while I know it’s not the same, by any means, I know that as a foreign student in France, there was a great tendency for internationals to group together–not even by country, but by that understanding of “we’re all in a new place, not speaking our first language, and sometimes that can be really tough.” Sometimes we had dinners together, with different individuals hosting.

    The best, though, was when the US Americans (and I hope the Canadians did the same) joined together to celebrate Thanksgiving. Everyone brought something: dishes/cutlery, beverages, special family dishes re-created as closely as possible with the available ingredients, and of course, turkey. While nothing beats celebrating special holidays with one’s family, it certainly was a very special Thanksgiving, with everyone coming together to make it happen.

    • We were just talking about Thanksgiving a couple of days ago! There are a total of three Americans here, and we would love to do a traditional-as-possible Thanksgiving. Unfortunately the lack of an oven is rather limiting in that respect.

      • We do a Thanksgiving dinner here every year too!

        Our social group has very few other whities/Americans in it — our friends-that-are-family group includes a mix of locals and expats, but most of the expats are from Asian countries, primarily China and Taiwan.

        Despite that, we have many people in our social group who studied in America or are just interested in different foods and cultures, so we do an as-traditional-as-possible Thanksgiving every year — and we do it potluck style, so that we don’t have the whole burden. (Part of the fun is trying to teach my friends how to cook things like green bean casserole and then trying out the dishes once they arrive!)

        We don’t have an oven, either, so we have to outsource the turkey. We usually order it from this high-end caterer that specializes in catering for expats. There are also a few restaurants and import grocery stores that offer turkeys around the holidays. Maybe there’s something similar in your neck of the woods?

        I always do the mashed potatoes, so that I can control the quality. (Whole milk and real butter is expensive, but it’s a MUST!) Stove Top Stuffing and powdered gravy packets aren’t the best, but they work and they’re usually available in the import grocery stores around Thanksgiving. So is canned cranberry sauce/jelly. Since we don’t have an oven, and buttermilk is impossible to find here, I usually make my own make-shift buttermilk from lemon juice and milk and then fry them instead of baking them. We end up having to make other substitutions, too — Asian long beans instead of green beans in the green bean casserole, purple ubi instead of orange sweet potatoes for the candied yams, etc… We even use our rice cooker as a dutch oven to cook apple crumble and pumpkin pies!!!

        • Ah, the joy of trying to find an adequate substitute for those crispy fried onions for green bean casserole. Let’s face it, there is no true, adequate substitute! (Luckily, my family came for Christmas and brought them, so when we made Christmas dinner, our green bean casserole was complete.)

        • Laoshi hao.

          You can totally cook a roast in a crock-pot/slow-cooker too. Maybe not a whole turkey, but maybe a couple of legs, or a boneless roll if you can get one, or at least a chicken?

  6. I spent 6 months teaching English in Taiwan, and I can totally relate! All the Americans would gather at N.Y. Bagel Cafe on Friday nights and just chat over french toast at midnight. I loved going to the night market and getting steamed bao for .10 a piece, and I loved cocooning myself in American culture once a week, too. It’s a dichotomy, for sure. There are things you love and hate about your host country, for sure, and you also start to see what you love and hate most about your home country. Weird feelings.

    But you are 100% about focusing on the students. I def. learned more from them than they did from me!

  7. Thanks for sharing your story! I have a friend who is doing a Masters in teaching English at Xiamen University right now, and he has a lot of very similar stories. I’m going to pass this along to him right now.

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