This post is dedicated to the few people who told me that I will never meet and Chinese people and become friends with them because they are to different and I will end up hanging around only with other foreigners. Although that might sound like a “challenge accepted” thing (“Within 3 months I want to be friends with X Chinese!”), I did not run around asking people if they want to be friends with me, but from the beginning:
Before I went to China I had a few occasions when I moved to a new city without knowing anybody. Until now I always managed to meet people more or less instantly without relying on any group I was with. That worked in Mannheim, where I met a close friend before I even met the first people from my University and it worked in Santiago, where the same happened. Additionally to these encounters which were planned, I had different other occasions where I, just by coincidence, met people on the road. (E.g. the Dutch girl at JFK or the truckers at Miami Airport).
With these experiences in mind I couldn’t really imagine it being hard to meet people in China either, even considering all the faux-pas and strange things everybody tells you stories about (“Don’t shake hands for greeting!”, “Don’t put the chopsticks in the rice!”, “Always receive presents with both hands!”
However, the same people who studied and worked in Hong Kong or Shanghai for several months kept telling me that it would be nearly impossible to build up a personal relation or even become friends with Chinese, due to
- Language barrier, “Hardly anybody speaks English!”
- Only superficial interest, “They are only interested because you are a foreigner!”
- Different humor, “We just couldn’t laugh about the same things!”
- Different idea of “friends”, “Chinese take a long time to build up a personal relationship!”
When I told them I was optimistic I would meet enough people anyway, I got an answer along the lines of: “Yea, you will make your own experiences!” with an implied “And you will have the same opinion when you come back!” I left Germany with a slight doubt (maybe it was true after all?) on the one hand and a “Now, definitely!” attitude on the other.
Already after a few weeks in China I could say:
That was bullshit!
It was exactly as hard (or as easy) as it was to meet locals anywhere else, no matter if Germany, Australia or Chile.
A little side note on the topic of “friends”:
Of course it is hard to build a long-lasting friendship in the course of three months. This is particularly true if you intend to work and travel and therefore have not as much time to invest in such a relation. When I talk about friends here I mean people who you can call to go out at the weekend, hang around in the evening, drinking a beer or going to KTV, helping each other for small things. I don’t expect somebody to stop everything he does if I sent him a text saying I need his help and neither would I be this person.
So how does “making friends” work?
Usually you build up a personal relation if you have something in common with another person:
- You might have a common friend and you are introduced to somebody by him. That skips the hurdle of the initial contact and the fact that your friend introduced you qualifies as a recommendation: the other person won’t be completely off the grid.
- You might share a common situation. You go somewhere with others and you all are in the same boat, getting employed with others, starting studies in a new city, going on a semester abroad. (That also includes “bigger boats” being an expat, having the same nationality, sitting in the same bus)
- You might find a common interest by coincidence. You ask somebody for the time and see that this person carries, like you, an elephant polo racket with them. Initial contact established; the rest is formality.
The first two situations are easy, they don’t require much effort and the result is there instantly. Would you rather hang out with one of the others, maybe only mildly interesting exchange students or sit home alone on a Friday evening? The problem with them is that you will not meet any truly new people. The friends of your friends are likely to have many other ties to people you already know and also most likely share similar interests and views. If you are in a boat-situation with others, all of you will only know each other, so already out of convenience you will do more and more things together because you might spend a majority of the time anyway together in university.
So how do you intend to meet (in this case) Chinese?
Many Chinese might approach you but usually only out of curiosity “Where are you from? What are you doing here?”. Only seldomly they wanted to seriously keep in touch with you. They have their other friends that talk Chinese so they don’t have to say everything in English. They have their (more serious) university schedule and daily life that exchange students or temporary interns in China don’t have to bother about too much. And anyway, if you invite one exchange student you are likely to end up with a whole bunch of them because (remember the boat people) they do everything together.
And now: How do you think anybody would meet German (Chilean) friends?
People might approach you but usually only out of curiosity “Where are you from? What are you doing here?”. Only seldomly they wanted to seriously keep in touch with you. They have their other friends that talk German (Spanish) so they don’t have to say everything in English. They have their (more serious) university schedule and daily life that exchange students or temporary interns in Germany (Chile) don’t have to bother about too much. And anyway, if you invite one exchange student you are likely to end up with a whole bunch of them because (remember the boat people) they do everything together.
So when people say it is difficult to make friends in China, it implies that it is easier in other countries and most likely the easiest in your own. That is only valid because most of the other people you did meet in China were also foreigners. And when you are in your home country it is highly likely that you know at least one or two people when you move to a new city.
Try to move somewhere in your country where you have never been before and truly don’t know anybody and try to make friends, just by going out on the street or in a club. Some people might talk to you in a club and get drunk with you but the majority has their established life and to take part in it you have to put some effort in it.
Usually I also had “boat-situations” but I always wanted to meet people apart from that as well so what I did in China (and Chile, and Australia, and Germany…) was the third option with the difference that I influenced the odds a little bit (some may call it “Online Dating”…without the hook-up part though).
Through CouchSurfing I looked for people to hang out with in Nanjing as well as people to stay at in Harbin and Beijing. It is basically impossible to find people there with whom you don’t share anything (you are at least members of CouchSurfing which implies you like travel and meeting new people). Like everywhere else you find locals and foreigners with interesting profiles, boring profiles or no profiles at all. And like everywhere else you find people who are curious enough to meet you or to host you. So that’s how I ended up going to Mt. Qixia on my second day in Nanjing, was introduced to the night life in Nanjing, got a cheap phone after mine was stolen, etc. That’s also how I learned how to make dumplings, spent Chinese New Year with a big Chinese family (also something which is “impossible for a foreigner”) and got into the Forbidden City without queuing and paying. None of these things were planned or even expected but also none of these things would have happened if I hadn’t approached so many different people by more or less asking “Dou you wanna be my friend?” Many of the people I met through CouchSurfing were actually Chinese and I didn’t have any problems getting along or understanding them at all. On the contrary they were remarkably friendly and helpful, gave me countless tips on when to go where, answered patiently all my (sometimes dumb) questions about the Chinese language and shared their houses and lives with me.
Of course you cannot expect any random person in your university, office or on the street to be your friend just by asking “Do you wanna be my friend?” maybe you are lucky and find one but the majority of people might just pity you. That is true in China, that is also true in Chile and Germany and I suspect anywhere else in the world. But if you know where to look and if you put a bit of effort in it and apply the worn out “stepping out of your comfort zone” you can meet amazing people. They might not become your closest friend with whom you will share most of your life – already due to the limited time you spent in that cty/country – but will make your experience of a country or a culture a lot more interesting and authentic.
That of course is only valid if you also WANT to do that. I wanted to meet Chinese, learn the language, and experience the culture. I wanted to learn to make dumplings, lose money playing Mahjongg and be forced to talk Chinese because otherwise people wouldn’t understand me (although I didn’t know that I wanted exactly these things before). I also met people who spent 6 years in China and didn’t speak a word of Chinese, expats that threw money down the drain of average bars and clubs in Shanghai and travelers that spent big money on tours just to be pushed through the usual crowed of people at the Great Wall.
Everybody has to decide for their own what kind of experience they want or dare to have because also with CouchSurfing it’s not sure you will end up with a nice experience or even a proper place to sleep and self-organized travel might result in a 3-4 hour trip just to realize that the place you planned to visit is closed and you have to go back. But not makeing an effort big enough (and that’s what I impute to the people who complain about not being able to meet Chinese locals) and afterwards complain about the people not being open enough is unfair and plainly ignorant.