Culture Family Stories Language 

“Look Mom! A foreigner!” aka Our BIGGEST Cultural Struggle

I suppose because my husband and I grew up as Americans surrounded by a multitude of cultures and in a sea of political-correctedness, we learned early on how rude and offensive it is to point out that someone might be from another country.

Because as soon as you point out that someone might be an immigrant, refugee, or not-from-around-here-out-of-towner, they’ll reply to you with the most local accent you could ever imagine. Immediately your gut sinks and you feel like an idiot for asking, “Where are you from?”

“I literally was birthed in the hospital down the road.”


They probably hear it all the time which makes it even more terrible.

So you learn how to ask in not so obvious ways.

“What do you do? How did you get into something like that? You went to college in that town? That’s cool! I have friends from this city near there. You GREW UP THERE?! SMALL WORLD!”

That’s how the ultra-curious skip around political correctness.

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The worldly culture-lover might tip-toe in a different way.

“You wouldn’t happen to be Nepali would you? I’ve been studying the Sherpa people in the Khumbu region. I’m fascinated by their seasonal migrations to and from the Himalayan valleys.”

Immediate safe-space is made because you clearly love other cultures and you’re not an immigrant-hater.

Alas, China on the whole is filled by many peoples who look the same, even if their hometown languages and cultures are not. Then with standard Chinese came a homogenous effect on culture for all younger Chinese and their families. (I refuse to call the Standard Chinese Language… Mandarin, but that’s a story for another time.)

They might have different ancestral cultures, but they all have similar goals and can speak one language now.

So, it’s pretty stinking obvious when you’re a foreigner.

But it doesn’t make the pointing and staring any easier.

It is the number one cultural shock and struggle we still have, even though we’ve lived here for nearly five years.

What’s the worst though is when kids shout and point. 

“Hey mom! It’s a foreigner!”

Today, Bobby went through his normal response to this.

In perfect Chinese he dramatically responded, “What? Where? I don’t see a foreigner!”

The kid who yelled and pointed just stared back with a gaping mouth. His mom stood next to him observing it all.

Bobby then asked, “Where are you from?”

No response.

“Oh, you’re the foreigner. You can’t speak Chinese.”

Still speechless, and proving the point.

His mom then laughed loudly in a very atypical way for public interactions.

Bobby isn’t sure if she did actually think it was funny, or if she was actually embarrassed.


I’m positive I couldn’t have held a straight face.

Chinese parents, please, for the love of my kids who are growing up here and are pretty much Chinese-American in a flipped way, teach your kids not to point and stare.

If you’ve been here for several years what are some things you still struggle with? How do you cope?

To share your thoughts, click the link for the group of other China-focused parents on Facebook or share on WeChat by scanning my QR code and asking to join the WeChat group.

Vanessa Jencks founded China Family Blog to connect internationally-minded parents through semi-humorous stories and China-life-and-parenting fails. She is the former managing editor of beijingkids magazine; see her previous work here. She is also the founder of the 600+ member organization, Innovative Educators

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One Thought to ““Look Mom! A foreigner!” aka Our BIGGEST Cultural Struggle”

  1. Oh my gosh, YES! This is 100% true. We have been in China for nearly a year now and it is very frustrating when people literally grab our children to take a picture with them. If people are nice we will still be kind and leave it up to our kids if they are ok to take a picture or not. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. If not we tell them and walk away. 60% of the time the people will just follow us like the paparazzi. My wife and I joke that it is like being famous without the perks.

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