East vs West

Cultural Differences: The Status Of Foreigners In China vs The West 《地位》

Chinese Subcultures Explained

In China, Guangzhou, en route to tutor English to a Chinese student, I stopped in the Friendship Mall in Taojin (友谊商店).

The mall is laden with luxury brands and high-end products catering to local Chinese consumers who own luxury cars, wear designer labels, and own fashionable pets.

Ordinary Chinese folk meanwhile walked in their droves outside, pushed carts to sell farm products, or crammed into the nearby metro to return home from the jobs that customers in Friendship mall provide them.

Able to glean China from a foreign perspective, I was reminded how China is a class-based culture.

The Various Class Divides In China

Chinese society is divided into four broad classes, the poor class, the working class, the middle class, and an upper elite class made of businessmen and entrepreneurs.

Members of Chinese society from poor socioeconomic backgrounds constitute the poor class. The poorer class in China unable to advance in society tend to hold traditional values. One traditional expectation is for filial (孝顺) children to travel to the city, work in a menial job, and send money back to the family. It is common to see the parents extend the family home to include the many siblings’ spouse and children, as well as the grandparents under one roof.

Members of the Chinese middle class tend to live and work in the cities. They attend university, have an office job, have disposable income, and their parents own an apartment. The Chinese working class has accumulated more knowledge and wealth in China.

Members of the Chinese upper class run businesses in China and abroad, have accumulated assets and wealth, and are able to immigrate to other countries.

Members of the Chinese elite are the millionaires splashing around in money who can afford to shop in the Friendship Mall.

Inter-Class Relationships In China

When wealth, status, and class is so rigidly defined in China, the question then becomes, how possible is it to have inter-class relationships with people?

In Chinese society, one tends to make friends with and marries within their socioeconomic class.

A poor Chinese female – unless she were exceptionally beautiful and pure – would find it extremely difficult to marry a Chinese bachelor millionaire. The difference in their status, level of sophistication and accumulated wealth would be insurmountable in Chinese society.

The Fake Luxury Class

This divide between rich and poor in China has also spawned cunning methods to blur those socioeconomic lines.

In their attempts to impersonate the upper echelons of Chinese society so as to make others believe they are super rich poorer classes walk around with fake Prada bags, cheap knock-off fashion and inexpensive wealth indicators to show off in Chinese society.

Chinese millionaires on the other hand demonstrate wealth with luxury sports cars and expensive goods. The statement says, “Your Prada bag is nice, but where is your luxury vehicle parked?”

Fashion Subcultures In China

Fashion subcultures in China also blur the socioeconomic lines.

Both rich and poor in China enjoy Cosplay culture, the Qipao culture (旗袍), Hanfu culture (漢服). Sexualized fashion culture – where Chinese females wear short shorts and mini skirts in general public and to work – is also inexpensive to imitate.

Fashion appropriation such as French clothes, Western clothes, and Korean-style fashion on the other hand is a middle class trend in China.

In seems that everyone wings it in terms of style in China to the point that fashion subcultures obscure the rich and poor classes.

Eventually, a bunch of Chinese society will latch onto a certain style, and it will become a subculture in China.

Defining The Foreigner Class In China

With such observable class divides in China, one has to wonder, what is the default class for a foreigner in China?

I believe the foreigner class is largely determined by the stereotypes and prejudices that Chinese people demonstrate towards outsiders.

Some Chinese females for example assume that because a foreign male comes from a wealthy nation, they can treat him like a meal ticket (男票). The perception is that foreigners are wealthy.

Some Chinese have a “red line” personality, that as soon as they see a foreigner, they are afraid of them. These people would flatly reject foreigners simply because they are Laowai (老外). This behavior typically comes from the lower class in Chinese who have been conditioned psychologically from an early age to be afraid of foreigners.

Then there are Chinese people who would be open to you, who will engage in conversation and allow a long-term relationship to develop.

There are various reactions that Chinese people have towards foreigners in China, however, the line between where a foreigner stands in terms of all these classes of Chinese people, is very opaque.

What Is The Default Foreigner Class In China?

Based on reactions, I would put my class as almost the same level as a rich business person in China.

In the eyes of most Chinese, the foreigner class seems to be equal to a rich Chinese businessman.

Chinese people who make acquaintance with foreigners would struggle to think, “I can’t understand how I can fit in with a foreigner because I have never seen The West. He is too unlike me. I can’t understand The West, so I can’t understand him.”

Status-Free Foreigners In China

I believe a foreigner in China would be in a class all to their own, which makes all Chinese people uncertain of how to classify foreigners.

In terms of foreigners making friendships in China, this confusion adds an extra layer of complexity to the relationship that a foreigner has with any class of Chinese in China.

Personally, in China I can make friends with the lowest class, with business class, with the high-fashion class, with the working class of China, with Chinese university students, and with Chinese who have traveled abroad to study, and returned to China with an open mind.

As a foreigner I can break through all these different class divides in China.

This makes me believe that foreigners in China are status-free.

No Class Distinction In Australia

In terms of being a foreigner in China, when I observe the people – even the lavishly-dressed rich people at the friendship store – I think about Australia.

The cultural differences between Australia and China in terms of class divides stems from the emphasis that Chinese people place on status (地位) and that Australian people place on equality.

In Australia, people are seen as people, rather than the projection of who they are as determined by their status (地位).

Australians in Western society do not fuss over what work you do, which car you own, whether you have a house, or how much money you make. As long as you are a nice person in Australian society with a suitable personality, Australian people would talk to you and make friends with you.

Australian society has no class divides. A person who is cleaning the floor as a janitor, doing the most base work, can become married to somebody who is an architect or a lawyer.

This can rarely happen in China because of family pressure on their child to marry up in society, to marry a richer family, or to marry for prosperity, rather than for love.

The Average Australian Circle Of Friends

In my circle of friends in Australia, I have friends who work, friends who do not work, friends on welfare, and friends who are lawyers, architects, and doctors. I have friends who own houses, and friends who don’t own houses. I have friends from all different countries all around the world.

This is a similar story in Australian culture. There is no discrimination when it comes to making a friend in Australia, because Australians just don’t think in terms of race, wealth, or status (地位).

Australians do not think, “This man is poor, therefore I can’t make friends with him for the mere fact that he is poor.”

China values status (地位) too much.

Chinese may look at a foreigner, and wonder to themselves, “What is my status compared to his status?”
That is what differentiates the rest of the Western world to China.


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