This week the University of North Florida’s contributions to CLI Perspectives continues again. Michele Pierson, Trey Brooks and Patricia Willis share their experiences and thoughts about life as a foreign minority in China. From the relentless asking of photos to be taken to the gratuitous help of passers by, they write about the good, the bad, and the ugly of life as a foreigner in China.

The highs & lows of minority life

By Michele Pierson, CLI Study Tour student

learn chinese in china

Michele in Shanghai’s Yu Garden.

Being a minority was definitely a huge change for me. Having light skin and obvious western characteristics (although some of my students thought I was Chinese for some unknown reason), I stuck out in the Han dominated China. Here in the melting pot that is the United States, all ethnicities and cultures are represented—maybe not equally, but still present within our multicultural landscape. So the experiences I had in China, concerning my apparent ‘whiteness’, is ultimately unique to this generally one ethnicity country. When I initially stepped off the plane from Newark to Beijing, culture-shock set in immediately. The airport was filled with thousands of people of the same ethnicity, stopping and staring at us with intense curiosity. While the trip progressed, people would ask to take photos with us like we were celebrities. Every time we would try and take a group photo, people would just start taking photos of us and not just a few people, but an overwhelming amount.

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The friendliness of locals allowed Michele to quickly improve her Chinese.

There was a time when this started to become frustrating—when we were in Guilin one of my student’s friends kept taking photos of us every five seconds. I’m sure there are hundreds of photos online somewhere of me slurping up mí fěn (a local Guilin noodle dish) and almost falling on the bus. I could not go anywhere without stares, sometimes laughter, and photos which hindered me from some activities such as just simply people watching discretely in a park. Overall, my experience of being a minority in China was positive, which is not usually the case when it comes to being of the marginal population. It would be interesting to study more on Chinese minorities, such as the Hui people, and understand their day to day lives in the Han dominated China compared to my experience. There are probably a lot of differences between western ethnicities and actual Chinese minorities, especially in western obsessed China.

My home away from home

By Trey Brooks, CLI Study Tour student

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Trey not only enjoyed speaking with locals, but also discovering China’s beautiful scenery.

One of the greatest things about my experience in China was the people. The majority of people greet you with a smile and seem genuinely happy that you are there. The people go out of their way to be friendly and courteous to you; something that rarely happens in the U.S. I found myself in a few situations where if I were the local and not the foreigner, I would have been frustrated and angry with myself. I never felt like anyone was being impatient, or upset at me for being ignorant about something in a certain situation. The kindness of people was truly amazing and made my experience unforgettable.

learn chinese in china

Trey and classmates practice speaking Chinese with friends.

My month spent in China was easily the best month of my life. This trip changed me in so many ways. I learned a lot about myself and about a country that I have now fallen in love with. My time spent in China has opened up my eyes to an entire new and amazing world I can’t wait to get back to. There is so much to do and so much to learn, you could spend a lifetime in China and still not have scratched the surface. A single month in China was not nearly enough. All it took was me stepping off of the plane back in the U.S. for me to miss China. They warned us that we might get homesick and feel melancholy a little bit after we got to China, but that never happened to me. I only feel sick and melancholy now that I am back in the U.S. I feel like I left home behind.

A new perspective

By Patricia Willis, CLI Study Tour student

study in china

Patricia (right) and a friend pose in a park near a pond.

I like that we’ve been presented the question of being a foreign minority in China.  What a whole new experience for myself, being looked at as an outsider.  I have never been followed around in a public store in my life, but no one in China seemed it strange to follow us around. On the other hand, some people were thrilled to see us, they wanted to practice their English with us and help us navigate the buses or take our photo! As strange as that was, I tried to be patient with them. China is such a huge country and people don’t seem to have the availability to travel and experience other cultures like we do in the US. It seems that our “melting pot” of a country really has succeeded in exposing Americans to other cultures without needing to travel.

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Patricia and her classmates at Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors

Whenever a shop owner was a little frustrated, I tried to set a good example for America by smiling and making it clear that I was trying to speak Chinese with them and understand how their stores and community operated. As hard as it was to communicate, I really welcomed the challenge of communicating with people. It was exciting and challenging, but something that I had to overcome. It was actually a shock to get back to the US and easily be able to communicate with people. I’ve had to be more careful about what I say in public knowing that others can understand me. I’ve also began practicing toning people out on a more frequent basis so that I don’t have to listen to pointless conversations of vain Americans just because I can understand what they are saying.

Being a minority was definitely a huge change for me. Having light skin and obvious western characteristics (although some of my students thought I was Chinese for some unknown reason), I stuck out in the Han dominated China. Here in the melting pot that is the United States, all ethnicities and cultures are represented—maybe not equally, but still present within our multicultural landscape. So the experiences I had in China, concerning my apparent ‘whiteness’, is ultimately unique to this generally one ethnicity country. When I initially stepped off the plane from Newark to Beijing, culture-shock set in immediately. The airport was filled with thousands of people, of the same ethnicity, stopping and staring at us with intense curiosity. While the trip progressed, people would ask to take photos with us like we were celebrities. Every time we would try and take a group photo, people would just start taking photos of us and not just a few people, but an overwhelming amount. There was a time when this started to become frustrating—when we were in Guilin one of my student’s friends kept taking photos of us every five seconds. I’m sure there are hundreds of photos online somewhere of me slurping up mí fěn (a local Guilin noodle dish) and almost falling on the bus. I could not go anywhere without stares, sometimes laughter, and photos which hindered me from some activities such as just simply people watching discretely in a park. Overall, my experience of being a minority in China was positive, which is not usually the case when it comes to being a marginal population. It would be interesting to study more on Chinese minorities such as the Hui people and understand their day to day lives in the Han dominated China compared to my experience. There are probably a lot of differences between western ethnicities and actual Chinese minorities, especially in western obsessed China.