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Learning to Be an Acceptable Outsider

From the series Going to China

One of the big adjustments that we (especially those from the West) have to make when we are in China is to being labeled a “foreigner.” The Chinese word is waiguoren (外国人), which literally translated is “outside country person.” A foreigner is an outsider. It is simply the category of person you belong to by virtue of not being Chinese.

It is hard to go through a day in China without being reminded of this outsider status. If you are a teacher, you have the status (and label) of “foreign expert.” Your residence permit declares that you are an outsider. And as you walk down the street you often hear people (young and old) point out, either indirectly or directly to you, that you are a foreigner. Truth be told, it can be rather annoying.

But it is also true. We are outsiders, and no amount of annoyance or taking offense on our side is going to change that fact.

Not being able to become insiders, then, what should we be aiming for? How about acceptability? If I can’t become an insider, can I at least become an acceptable outsider?

This is a concept I learned from the late Dr. Don Larson, of Barefoot Language Learning during an internship I did with him 20+ years ago. For Larson, an acceptable outsider was one who is actively working towards an understanding of the culture and language of the insiders and has established himself/herself in the community as a learner.

An acceptable outsider is a learner.

While there are a myriad practical ways to be a learner of the culture and language of insiders, the starting points are access, submission, and change.

In order to be an acceptable outsider, we must have access to the world of the insiders.

In order to be an acceptable outsider, we must be willing to submit to insiders and their ways.

In order to be an acceptable outsider, we must be willing to change. Ourselves, not the culture around us!

Whether you are preparing to serve in China, are newly arrived, or have been around for a long time, it’s always good to assess how we are doing at becoming an acceptable outsider. To help, here are some specific questions to consider:

The Access Questions

  • In what ways and to what extent must I, as an outsider, have access to the world of insiders and allow insiders access to my world in order to be what I want to be and do what I want to do?
  • What specific steps have/can I take to gain access to the world of insiders?
  • What specific steps have/can I take to give insiders access to my world?

The Submission Questions

  • In what ways and to what extent must I submit to the insider in order to be effective? Further, in what ways and to what extent must I identify, cultivate, and re-enforce what insiders like about me and identify, weed out, and reject what they don’t like about me?
  • Who/what must I be willing to submit to? This can be people, customs, or even values.
  • Are they people, customs, or values that are particularly difficult to submit to?

The Change Questions

  • In what ways and to what extent must I come to grips with my own tribalism and make some changes before I can bring myself to submit to people of another tribe?
  • What might/do insiders like about me?
  • What might/do insiders not like about me?

The next time a kid shouts laowai at you, just smile and say to yourself, “true, but at least I’m learning to be an acceptable outsider.”

Image credit: Alex Collins on Unsplash.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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