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Zhibo: The Easy Life of the Laowai

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Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe (Inke). If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

Last week, I saw a comment that really stuck with me:

Laowai have an easy life here, have sex with random girls in China.

My best attempt at a respectfully neutral face. These are not muscles I often stretch.

(Quick reminder – laowai is a term for foreigners that isn’t necessarily insulting depending on the context but… you know, definitely gets spat out between clenched teeth now and then.)

There’s a lot to unpack here. Enough that I’d like to devote this week’s column to it. I hope you’ll forgive the lack of goofy fun this week – but if you do make it to the end, there’s an adorable puppy gif waiting for you.

Don’t you dare scroll down. You EARN that puppy.

Let’s start with the first half Laowai have an easy life here.”

Let’s begin with a frank acknowledgement and come back to the caveats and defensive whataboutism later. We do have an easy life in China.

not quite, but you get the idea

And by “we,” I mean white foreigners who speak English… or even kinda speak English. As I’ve mentioned before, the demand for English language education in China – not even a real education, just someone to practice with – so overwhelms the supply of qualified teachers that even the laziest jackass with a white face can be safely assured of a comfortable income here. I feel like a lot of foreigners here forget that just *having* job security and a guaranteed comfortable income in a big safe modern city with zero qualifications is not a normal thing.

Yes, there’s a good amount of xenophobia in China. Yes, you sometimes deal with foreigner-specific bureaucratic/police B.S. Yes, people are going to stare at and point at you and you might sometimes even be refused service or treated unfairly on occasion.

But when you’re weighing up the pros and cons of living in China, none of that can come close to the fact that no matter what happens, there will ALWAYS be people asking you to take on teaching, tutoring, editing, recording, and speaking gigs that require nothing more than your native language and the barest acceptable levels of confidence and presentability. In a day, you could line up a few hundred dollar’s worth of one-on-one tutoring jobs that all come with free home-cooked meals and transportation.

not so ridiculous now, is it?

Look, I’m not writing one of those “there’s nothing wrong with China, it’s better than America” pieces. I’m just talking about the comparative advantages that a lot of foreigners have over Chinese citizens. Even if they’ve never taught a class in their lives, every white foreigner walks around every day knowing that they have that get-out-of-poverty-free-card in their back pockets.

Having that peace of mind at all times is a massive and incredibly unusual life advantage that goes largely unacknowledged by folks who would much rather see themselves as 21st century Marco Polos, boldly pioneering their way through a challenging environment the likes of which their friends back home could never survive. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Marco Polo was, academically speaking, full of shit – so this might be a sneakily apt analogy.

I don’t know how many expats actually read this, but let it be known that I’m not trying to discount the real problems of real humans. I know that we only ever see life through a single pair of eyes and everyone’s issues can’t feel anything other than real. I get that after a long day of hard work followed by a harrowing journey through Beijing traffic, a nasty argument with a security guard about where you parked your scooter, a shower that is still freezing cold because your landlord knows you can’t force them to fix it, and a night of nonstop coughing thanks to the smog, the last thing you want to hear is how your life is easy.

“Laowai have an easy life here” is neither a thoughtful nor a well-defined way of expressing the point that foreigners have certain advantages in China that make their lives, on average, easier and more comfortable than the life of an average Chinese citizen.

But at its core, it’s a valid point worth considering, especially by anyone who finds themselves veering over the line from typical after-work banter to genuinely thinking that China is somehow out to get them. It’s not. So suck it up, go show up late and hungover to the classes you can barely be bothered to teach, and maybe stop whining about the guy who pointed at you on the subway, because he makes less in a month of backbreaking labor than you’re gonna spend on drinks tonight.

Now, the second half “have sex with random girls in China.”

…Now that I’ve endeared myself to any readers living in China, let’s take a deep breath and dive into the second half of this charming comment: Laowai have an easy life here, have sex with random girls in China.

The way I see it, there are two assumptions baked into those seven words. First, that foreign guys must take advantage of Chinese women – and second, that Chinese women are *easy* to take advantage of. For the second assumption, I refer you to the boilerplate “dumb stereotype” response I always use on Inke: the idea that you think half a billion people are all a certain *way* means that you are either very dumb or are ignoring very basic common sense in order to convince yourself of something you’d like to believe.

 But the first assumption – that all foreign guys must naturally spend their time cruising through Tantan (Chinese Tinder) and leaving a trail of broken hearts (or worse) in their wake – is harder for me to brush off as a generalization not worth acknowledging. “Single foreign straight males in China” is a very small and specific demographic – and the average wealth and power imbalance between the foreign guys and local women is a measurable reality.

Furthermore, while anecdotes may be no substitute for data, I would be lying if I said I didn’t see red flags everywhere in Beijing – guys at bars talking loudly in the language of exotic trophy collection, creepy relationships that wouldn’t get a pass back home, and cringe-y first dates in cafés you can’t help but overhear because the guy is mansplaining Chinese history to her and bragging about how much money he makes tutoring so loudly that I want to melt into the floor on behalf of every foreign dude in China.

“you know, the CPC has actually lifted more people out of poverty than any government in human history!”

The idea that foreign guys in China have an easy time hooking up with local women is the kind of thing that can and does often ignite very, very heated arguments.

There’s the perspective of Chinese men who feel that foreigners are coming in and *stealing* what should be theirs (a shame they already built their wall, right?). There’s the perspective of Chinese women who would prefer to not be thought of as a flag to be captured. There’s straight foreign women who can’t believe how much of their dating pool is made up of LBH (loser back home) guys who would rather take advantage of Chinese girls hoping to practice English than put in some effort with someone you can’t use your native language to condescend to. And of course, there’s the foreign guys who would, if at all possible, like to not be seen as racist sex tourists.

thankfully, none of this applies to me

There’s really not much else to say. I’m not trying to make this fella’s comment about me specifically or get defensive. Personally, I’ve never dated a Chinese woman, but I wouldn’t turn tail and run from such a thing in the hopes of making internet bozo #251 think the better of me.

For every creepy abusive foreigner guy, there’s another one who’s gotten married, started a family, and brought some racial-divide-bridging multi-racial babies into this world. And while my life is unquestionably easier than 99.999% of all the humans who have ever lived, I feel like the best I can do with that is to not be a dick about it.

Guess that’s where I’m leaving it this week – let’s all try to not be dicks about stuff.

Bye!

As promised

You might also like:

Hutong Jiemei: What It’s Like to Date on TanTan, China’s Tinder

Wǒ Men Podcast: The Difficulties of Dating in China

Zhibo: The Great Qipao Kerfuffle of 2018

Taylor Hartwell
Taylor has been living in China since 2014 on the basis that he's already sunk too much into studying Chinese and can't stop now. When not staring at himself on his phone, he can be found writing, teaching and consulting at various schools and companies in Beijing. His Zhibo column runs every Monday on Radii. He tweets @TaylorJHartwell

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