As the number of expats living in China continues to grow, there are challenges when intertwining these multicultural communities

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/25 18:53:39

Following a recent incident in which a foreigner verbally assaulted his Chinese neighbor, Chinese residents share their impression and understanding of their foreign neighbors. Photo: IC

Following a recent incident in which a foreigner verbally assaulted his Chinese neighbor, Chinese residents share their impression and understanding of their foreign neighbors. Photo: IC

Two years ago, a foreigner moved next door to Xing Yashu, a 24-year-old girl who works at a financial company in Beijing. In the beginning, she was afraid that they would have some difficulty getting along. But as time went by, she realized that she liked having a foreign neighbor man than a Chinese one.

Now, whenever she moves, she always searches for apartments in communities that have many foreign residents. It pleases her even more if she ends up with a foreign neighbor because even though they may have different habits, cultural backgrounds and ways of communication, she really likes the way her foreign neighbors respect personal boundaries and public areas.

But foreign neighbors are not always perfect.

On November 20, Rainer Gaertner, a senior executive from German carmaker Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, had an altercation with a Chinese neighbor in a Beijing parking lot. He was accused of saying racist remarks about Chinese and pepper-spraying an onlooker during the argument, according to a November 22 Global Times report.

The incident has caused a big stir on the Internet. Many Chinese Net users have also commented on their foreign neighbors. As more foreigners move to China, more ordinary Chinese are likely to have a foreigner as a neighbor. However, the language and cultural differences may present some challenges for the two parties to communicate and live in harmony.

Metropolitan asked some Chinese who have foreign neighbors to share their neighborhood stories and speak to whether cultural differences could cause problems and how to solve them.

Although Chinese and foreigners speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds and habits, some Chinese admire their foreign neighbors' respect for personal boundaries and public spaces. Photo: IC

Although Chinese and foreigners speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds and habits, some Chinese admire their foreign neighbors' respect for personal boundaries and public spaces. Photo: IC

Different social habits

Coming from different cultural backgrounds, surely Chinese and foreigners would have varied social habits and expectations about living spaces. And without mutual understanding and proper communication, sometimes it could cause conflicts between the two groups.

Xing was astonished when she heard about the incident in the parking lot. She had never had such an experience before.

"I can't imagine why two neighbors' conflict would evolve into an insult to a nation. I think it only shows that person's lack of respect for other people and countries," Xing said.

Xing has a good relationship with her neighbor who is from the UK and is the same age as Xing. He likes to host parties in his apartment on some holidays, and he always invites Xing to join.

For Thanksgiving last year, he hosted a party at home, and Xing couldn't join because she had to work late that day. When Xing got home, it was already half past midnight. The party was still going on, and the music was very loud.

Xing tried to sleep with the noise, but she couldn't, so she went to his apartment and asked if he could keep the noise down.

"He immediately apologized to me and ended the party. He was very polite," Xing said. "After that, whenever he has a party, he would keep the volume down and make sure to end the party at midnight."

Communicating with Chinese neighbors could be quite different, according to Xing.

"I once complained to my Chinese neighbor about being too loud when drinking at home with friends, and we ended up having a fight because my neighbor thought that I made them lose face in front of their friends. They were drunk," Xing said.

From Xing's observation, when facing things that make them uncomfortable, Chinese neighbors are usually more restrained; they wouldn't tell you point blank. They would try to tolerate the situation, and when they can't tolerate it anymore, a fight would break out, or they would just be angry at you and not talk to you anymore without telling you what's wrong.

In contrast, foreigners would neither start a head-on confrontation nor tolerate the situation.

Bao Qi, 28, lives in a mixed community in which about 10 percent of the residents are foreigners in Kunming, Yunnan Province.

She said that people from her community management office told her that when dealing with noisy neighbors, sometimes foreigners would call and ask the people from management office to negotiate with their Chinese neighbors to turn the volume down.

"They would say that noise so late at night is against the community's regulations and ask the staff to negotiate," said Bao.

Boundaries and personal space

Although they have different social habits and cultural backgrounds, both Xing and Bao said there are many things they like about their foreign neighbors.

"When my foreign neighbors walk their dogs, they would always carry a bag to pick up the feces left by their dogs, and they really abide by the rules of garbage classification," Bao said. 

Xing feels the same. She said her foreign neighbor takes very good care of public areas.

"My Chinese neighbors usually leave some boxes and garbage in the hallway, but he never does that. Sometimes he even helps clean up the hallway to keep the public area clean, although no one asked him to do that," Xing said.

A June 2015 Xiaoxiang Morning Herald report spoke of a similar situation in which a foreigner in Changsha, Hunan Province volunteered to cut the weeds in his community every week because he was concerned about the community's environment and wanted to do something to make it better.

Foreign neighbors value personal boundaries and privacy. They don't like to cause trouble for other people, according to Xing. "When I invite my foreign neighbor to come over and have breakfast with me and my boyfriend, he would express their thanks and then ask if I would feel better if he take the food back to his place because he guessed I would want some privacy with my boyfriend," Xing said.

Communication and understanding

Zhang Peng, 35, who works in Beijing, has been living next door to a family from the US for three years, and they have a good relationship.

"The second day they moved in, they visited us with a bottle of wine and a toy for my daughter. That really surprised us," Zhang recalled. "In big cities like Beijing, everybody is so busy and has a distant neighborhood relationship. We never thought about visiting our neighbors."

To return their kindness, Zhang invited them over to make Chinese dumplings and have a dinner together the next week.

"Our daughters became good friends. My daughter's English is very good thanks to my foreign neighbors, and their daughter has also become a young China hand," Zhang laughed.

Stephanie Tebow, a counselor at Harrow International School in Beijing, used to offer orientations for foreigners who are about to move to China. She said it may seem daunting for either Chinese or foreigners to live next door to people from different countries, especially if they don't speak the same language and can't communicate with each other.

"But it's really not that difficult; you don't need to speak the same language or have the same cultural background to be a considerate and a good neighbor," Tebow said.

As China becomes more open and more foreigners come to China, the Chinese are becoming more used to seeing foreigners around and know how to behave around them, according to Tebow.

"Just smile and say hello to each other. Help when you see someone in need. Be polite, and when you do something, think about whether it would influence people living next door. Just think about what you would want other people to do," Tebow said.

Zhang's neighbor is about to relocate to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. "We are having a really hard time saying goodbye to our neighbors. They are not just neighbors but also friends," Zhang said.

"But who knows, maybe we will have a new foreign neighbor, maybe from Africa, South Korea or Germany, and we will also become friends. We are really looking forward to that."

Newspaper headline: My foreign neighbors


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