Actually, Not All Chinese People are the Same

Word of the Week: qí shí

One of the more frustrating things about living in China is that I am so often perceived as nothing more than “generic foreigner”. This is why, even though English is my first language, I also find it annoying when people insist on talking to me in English (especially if I initiated the conversation in Chinese). Yes I am English, but how did you know I wasn’t French?


Admittedly, that situation is probably more annoying for people who are actually French. But the truth is that for the vast majority of Chinese the words “English person” and “French person” seem to translate as the exact same word in Chinese, wài guó rén 外国人. If you check the dictionary it will tell you wài guó rén means “foreigner”, but in reality it actually means “person who doesn’t look Asian and is assumed to speak English”.


One of the best things about learning a foreign language is that stereotypes can be broken down. My stereotypes of Chinese people quickly broke down as my language ability improved and I could actually talk to them. And I can use my Chinese ability to break down their stereotypes of me by talking to them.

taxispeaking to taxi drivers can be great language practise

When I was on my way home in a taxi after a few beers the other night I was able to speak to the driver and without asking I instantly knew two things about him. I knew he was a wài dì rén 外地人 (an outsider, a person from a different province) and I also knew that he was a nóng mín 农民 (a word that officially means “person who is registered a resident in a rural area” but is often used pejoratively to mean “peasant”).


Because I could speak to him I did not see him as “generic Chinese man” and I wanted to break down his preconceptions of me too. So when he asked the perfunctory nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén 你是哪里人 (where are you from?) I decided I wanted to not conform to any stereotype and instead replied by saying qí shí wǒ shì nóng mín. yīng guó de nóng mín 其实我是农民,英国的农民 (actually, I’m from a rural area in Britain).


I chose my words deliberately because the negative connotations of nóng mín in Chinese don’t really match up with the connotations of the word wài guó rén. Since this might come as a surprise for him to hear I used the word qí shí 其实, which indicates that things are against expectation and can usually be translated as “actually…”

countrysideback home

When I told him I was nóng mín he reacted with pleasant surprise. wǒ yě shì我也是!(me too!) he exclaimed and as I described the area where my dad lives in Britain I got he feeling he was able to relate to me as an individual rather than a generic wài guó rén. That, and I was able to use the word qí shí 其实 several times.

qí shí wǒ duì dà chéng shì de shēng huó bú tài xí guàn 其实我对大城市的生活不太习惯 (actually I’m not that used to life in the big city)

gymA sign at the gym says “this kind of you actually isn’t far away”

Of course he asked me about learning Chinese, to which I simply said qí shí zhōng wén méi yǒu nà me nán 其实中文没有那么难 (actually, Chinese isn’t really that difficult). When you’re at the beginning of learning Chinese it might seem difficult, but believe me when I say zhōng wén qí shí bù nán (Chinese actually isn’t difficult) If you don’t believe me you can click here to check this post on 5 reasons why Mandarin is easy. Maybe I can change your mind.

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