Just the other day, I was in a bookshop and spotted a volume entitled How to Make Friends with Foreigners by Li Yang of Crazy English fame. Naturally, as a foreigner who has been living in China for a year, I was curious to see what kind of advice a Chinese writer was giving on this matter.
One piece of advice really grabbed my attention and, I must say, made me feel quite annoyed. In Li’s opinion, foreigners are an “opportunity” to improve your oral English; whenever you see a foreigner, you should practice speaking English to him/her. The writer goes on to say that if the foreigner doesn’t want to answer your questions, then he/she is a rude person who you wouldn’t want to spend time with anyway. I think this counsel is not only incorrect, but also potentially damaging to relations between Chinese and foreigners in China.
Like most other laowai living in China, I know how isolated one can sometimes feel living amid a culture far removed from our own familiar ways. However, most of the time this cultural isolation is something I simply accept as part of being here. I am, after all, here to learn about the people and the language of China and if I really hated this place then I would go home! So far my time in China has been very rewarding. I have improved my Chinese language skills, learnt about one of the most fascinating, swiftly developing countries in the world today and made some very close Chinese friends.
Unfortunately, I have also come across many Chinese people who view me purely as an “opportunity” to improve their oral English under the guise of making friends. I have experienced people following me home from town to my college flat and then harassing me to teach them English or practice English with them. I have had complete strangers thrusting articles, manuals and speeches in my face, insisting that I help them with the English translation. I have had people asking me to assist with immigration applications to other countries. All of these people have claimed at the time that what they chiefly wanted was to make friends with me. There was even one person at the weekly English Corner that I run at college who, after plying me with non-stop questions for half an hour, became very angry when I politely asked him to give other people a chance to speak. He puffed himself up like a peacock and informed me that he was simply trying to be my friend. www.rr365.com
He may well have thought he was trying to be my friend, but where I come from you don’t build friendships by pestering and badgering another person. Friendship for a lot of Westerners is about spending time with someone whose company you genuinely enjoy. It’s not about opportunities or personal advantage. The Chinese friends I have made while living here have been genuine friends to me; we enjoy each other’s company for its own sake. In this way, we’ve not only learnt a good deal about each other’s culture but also about each other as individuals.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t approach foreigners at all. However, I do think that it’s important to question your own motives. If you truly want to make friends with someone from a different country, who could possibly object? On the other hand, if your only motive is to “use” the foreigner as a way of improving your English, then it’s quite likely that the foreigner will be able to see through you - and will definitely not want to spend time with you.
So if there’s any advice to give on making and keeping friendships with foreigners, I would say that it is this: Treat foreigners as people, not opportunities. Expect to make friendships gradually, over a period of time, not instantly. And don’t ply foreigners with lots and lots of disparate questions. At times, this approach comes across as confusing and unnatural.
Finally, I would suggest that if you really want to make friends with a foreigner, then you do so because you are genuinely interested in the person. We all know that true friendships stand the test of time. If your only reason for making friends with a foreigner is to upgrade your English, then you will probably find that you don’t have a foreign friend for long.
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