The first time I arrived in China, I was thrilled with how fast I could make Chinese friends. It seemed like no matter where I was going, I ran straight into people who wanted to take photos with me or wanted my phone number. It was so easy to get into contact with locals and I loved the attention.
But then after staying for a few months, I realized that many Chinese aren’t interested in me as a person but in my origin, my different color and my English language. After this realization, I became quite depressed for a while. I started to delete all the new contacts in my phone (I couldn’t remember who they where anyway, all those weird Chinese names which all sounded the same to be), I always didn’t want to talk English to the Chinese I met anymore because I had started learning Mandarin and I didn’t want to walk around like a free English-lesson. I actually think that me not wanting to be used as English practice, made me study harder on my Mandarin to be able to talk to people anyway (I do like talking A LOT).
I call these incidents the “Foreign Friend Concept”. Many Chinese people have only seen foreigners in the TV and they’re so excited to meet one in real life that they aren’t shy to interrupt you wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Some Chinese are quite shy, but nobody minds saying “Hello” in English and they especially love to yell it out loud after you’ve just walked by (Always after you’ve passed them, probably because of the shyness).
If you’re going to China, you need to prepare for the fact that many Chinese people will come and ask for a picture with you or your number. Just give it to them and then you can always delete it later on. These people usually don’t contact you afterwards. It’s more to tell friends that they’re having an international friend. So don’t be nervous, they aren’t going to hunt you down afterwards (watching too many horror movies can make anyone paranoid).
In China right now, it’s quite important to be international because of the new open market, country and economy. So buying an Iphone, speaking English and have an international friend prove that the person is cool. Yeah, it sounds a bit crazy but the country has only ‘recently’ opened up and all these new things have a great status of wealth, mostly because the Chinese products are always cheaper than the international brands and wealth is important after many years with starvation and extreme poverty.
Anyway, if you don’t have a “rock-star-day” then you can always just put music in your ears. Sometimes they still try to talk to you but I just pretend I don’t hear it. Like, if you want to climb a mountain alone and don’t feel like taking photos with tourists on your climb up being all sweaty and disgusting, this is working quite well (Yes, I did it and it’s working well with the music after I’d seen one of the photos, they’d taken with me, sweaty foreigner, yes, not a side of myself I’d like to see again).
But these are just curious people who love to hear stories from abroad, so if you have some time, take some photos with them or just say hello when they’re greeting you. It’ll make their day.
But then again, when being in the bigger cities, it’s also easy enough to find Chinese who aren’t like that as well. If the person has been abroad already, they’re more relaxed about your differences. These people can be friends for life if you try to integrate with them. Chinese love food, so invite them for lunch and have a chat about culture differences and traditions in your own country (and try in Mandarin so it’s you who can practice, free Mandarin lessons, right?)
Take a photo, practice your Mandarin and have a laugh and bring music if it’s too much (just in case).