The Laowai Psychological Street Fight

I’ve always been a lousy liar. Remembering whom I’ve told what to is difficult for me when it’s the truth, but add in the complexity of deceit, well… forget it.

About five years ago my buddies and I started up a weekly Texas Hold’em game, and this taught me the “bluff”. Now here was a lie I could get into. It was limited in scope, non-committal, and expected. Sadly (ok, not too sadly) backpacking Europe and S.E. Asia got in the way of honing my skills to a Johnny Chan level.

However, over the course of time I’ve been “in country” here in China, I’ve subtly whet this skill without even knowing it. My bluff? That I speak Chinese.

You see, rarely a few days go by when I don’t find myself in a situation where I walk by a group of (almost always male) 20somethings that mumble “safsefaeadfaelǎowàiawkfjal awfd ahwdawh awdawhadwwǒcàoasdw wfaw”. This is usually followed by the Laowai-hair-raising “Hellooooo!”

And that’s where they make their face-losing mistake. You see, as pitiful as my Chinese is, it’s better than their English. In no small part because I live in China, and am married to a Chinese woman, while they most likely are not spending six months a year in Aspen and dating some 外国女人.

So, time to bluff. As soon as they start referencing me (always in the “he can’t understand us, or this shit we’re talking about him” way) I ready myself for the coming “Helloooo”. When it arrives, I pounce with an overly sincere and surprised: “你会说英语吗!?!”

This simple sentence is the cornerstone of solid psychological street fighting in China.

In one easy to remember (and more importantly, easily understood) sentence of Chinese, I castrate my opponent by not just letting it be known bluffing that I understood every word they just said about me, but I also force them into admitting that their bogus English greeting was, in fact, the extent of their extra-lingual skills. And the cherry on top, it’s done while demonstrating (or rather, bluffing) that I can speak Chinese.

Now sure, if I was certain of what was being said about me, I’d likely rip ’em a new one (I’ve now got the vocab). But when I’m not 100%, this is a simple little method of keeping some chalk on the Laowai side of the scoreboard.

26 Responses

  1. Good psychological warfare tactic. Problem is, whenever I respond to people like this (usually idiots) I end up pissing myself off more than the other party… but applaud anyone who can respond in a measured, funny, and appropriate manner (usually I respond in very polite words but not quite so happily – which gives these kind of guys a chance to be even more satisfied with their ignorance).

    But really, it’s the perfect comeback. Just don’t forget to add a really loud 哇 first.

  2. Always depends on the situation. I always ignore the Seinfeld-esque “Hellooo!” And when it comes to the aggressive vendors, I either go with “ting bu dong” to whatever they say, or “No hablo Ingles.”

    I do find it funny when I hear the conversations of how I don’t understand–I can’t help but laugh.

  3. I should clarify that this is only directed to those dimwits that are trying to show a bit of bravado for their mates.

    As annoying as the “Hellooo” thing is from vendors, I respect that they’re just trying to get my attention for my business – and they do an equally annoying job of it in Chinese as well.

  4. Part of what bothers me about having “Hallooo” jabbed into the back of my head is the assumption that all foreigners speak English. Maybe I’m Russian. Maybe I’m German, French, or Spanish.

    At times, I enjoy returning the ‘greeting’ by saying “konnichi wa”. Needless to say, this doesn’t usually put smiles on theirs faces.

    Honestly, having ‘hallo’ shot at me wouldn’t be so annoying if it were said as I was coming, rather than going. sigh.

  5. I haven’t tried this yet, but I have in mind the next time I encounter an obnoxious “Hellooo!”, to immediately bombard the fool with a torrent of English: “Oh, you speak English!! Oh, I’m so happy to finally meet someone in this country who speaks English and who’s willing to have a conversation with me …” that kind of thing.
    Actually, though, I don’t notice the hellos much anymore. I think it’s because I listen to MP3s now whenever I’m on the road.

  6. Hi Ryan!

    About a year ago, as I was anticipating my move to Dalian, China, I contacted you and you patiently babysat via email. Thank you again for that.

    Now I need to try the method you outlined here in this post and also learn all the Chinese words you have the linked page!

    Hope you are well:)

  7. Haha, nice. I do the same type of things when I’m ‘helloo!-ed’. (Unless I’m not in the mood…then I just quietly respond, ‘oh hey, how’s it going?’. They don’t really get that one either though)

  8. Love the new blog template, I have to say first.

    Second, I know exactly what you mean. Whenever I’m at work and the janitors (who are from Mexico) say anything about me or the people I work with, I have a lot of fun reminding them that I speak Spanish. It’s just good clean fun.

  9. I’ve just blogged in response to this post. Well, in response to my own experiences with this topic, too. I like your idea, but I’m not quite brave enough….I’d probably end up with the one who actually can shuo ying wen….

  10. I couldn’t help it, I just started adding phrases to your general response. Depending on mood, you could throw in criticism or praise regarding their English speaking skills.

    I can’t put it in Chinese (my Chinese is so bad, and grammar escapes me at the moment), but basically “O! You can speak english? You speak pretty badly, you should practice more.” Or if sarcasm is the mood of the day: “Wow, you speak really well!”

    Ah, there’s nothing like one-upping annoying people…

  11. I like the idea of responding in Japanese I’ll have to try that sometime.
    Normal friendly hellos are fine and welcome. Its the fuckwits who do the long drawn out “Hellooooo” that are the reason I ignore almost everyone who says hello.
    I have accidentally snubbed some of my students parents when I encounter them on the street because I ignore hellos. I have since told them to say my name after the hello so I know it’s coming from someone i know.
    In my opinion the worst hello is the “drive by hello” where a car pulls up next to you, stops, then some retard yells hello out the windows and they speed off. I think a drive by shooting is preferable

  12. I was thinking we laowai should get cards printed up, English one side, Chinese on the other, that said something to the effect of:

    “When you point, stare, laugh, talk about me thinking I cannot possibly understand, and even shout “Hello” just because I am foreign, I feel like an animal in the zoo. But I’m not an animal at the zoo, I’m a real person, just like you. Let’s all try to treat each other with respect.”

    My Chinese isn’t up to translating it, but once we have the text in Chinese, it’s so cheap to get a few hundred cards printed up. Anybody up for it?

  13. Well at least they’re not throwing food at us.(This seems to be a common practice for Chinese people visiting the zoo here in Dalian)

    I have actually been to the ‘zoo’ here in Dalian, and had people try to have their pictures taken with me.

    I bet if I had started throwing my own turds around less people would have wanted portraits taken with me.

  14. I used to love replying to “those” type of people who would talk about me as I walked past. I too could pick out some of the things they were saying about me. I would then start to ask, do you speak English?, ask what their name was, are you married, do you like sweet and sour pork or beer? I would just rattle off any old shit just to catch them off guard. The results were gold.

  15. well, according to “SpiralCow” it is exactly my way of dealing with that shit from those peanut-brains – daughters and sons of the new terrible chinese middleclass: I am Spaniard and I refuse to speak english since it is not spoken in Europe/Spain. It is not common there, they do not know that. So, but because I speak it in China, they must speak it in Europe/Spain too? No? HEHEHE!

    Whenever I have a bad mood, I reply in spanish, causing them to run away while watching me like a double-extra weird lao wai.
    So sick. They think that every country, every nation, every fucking foreigner speaks english. And they think (they really do, and I have an incredible proof from a chinese student who went to Europe..), thinking that english is the laowai language, everywhere and anywhere. And everyone speaks it. You speak english? THE WORLD IS YOURS! *lol* Actually, the languages of the future are spanish and mandarin. Official Statistics say that.

    So: “Hellloooooo lao wai, nice to meet you. My english name is Super-Peanut”

    “¿QUE DICES?. ¿Hablas español?”



    bai bai…

    There is hope: The first spanish only language school opened in Shanghai.

  16. most recently in shanghai i’ve responded by saying in chinese that i don’t speak english, but perhaps they knew arabic? it pretty much guarantees that they’ll just wave me by. the mp3 player may have to be my solution in the future.

  17. Re: Europa’s comment. I’ve met one German and a few Russians who learnt English in China precisely because of the far too common Chinese attitude that all Laowai must speak English and only English.

    And twice I’ve had idiots on the side of the road decide I must be Russian and then yell at me in English.

    And I fully approve of replying to “Halloooooo!”s in any language but English. I’ve been known to reply in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Maori, Samoan….. On one memorable occasion with two other Kiwis in a field outside Yangshuo when we ran into a tour group full of hallooos, we ran through all those languages and more and speak even one single word of English. Fun.

  18. Funny example:

    7:30 in the morning in the metro. I dangereous to speak with me in the morning before having my coffee. Anyways, a shanghainese (naturally) was crazy enough:

    “Oh, you have nice watch.”

    “Perdon, que has dicho?”

    “Gooda watch!”

    “Puedes repetirlo, no te entendido”

    “Oh you speak the english good, you can talk slow please so i understand”

    You got it? Its a true situation. I guess the end was somekind of that ridiculous chinese-face thing…

    Dear Chinese, please note this into your red book of wisdom: In Spain we speak spanish. In Germany they speak german, In Italy they speak italian, In greece they speak greek, In France they speak french, In Portugal they speak portuguese…I know it must sound like an incredible lie and fairy tale but it is true!

    For daily life, english is nothing in Europe. Dont believe those agencies who cash you much money for transfering you to Europe and tell you: With english you can do everything, everywhere in Europe. An ex-workmate of mine really believe that and made a big mistake. Its not China where you can survive with english only.

    But if you are among young people who might hear basic english like “Hellloo Chinese”

    Very important you hellos:

    Most Foreigners in China must speak english, but that doesn´t mean that its spoken in our home countries. Unbelievable but true!!!

    Also: Speak Chinese, no problem. I will then use you to practice my chinese. X-D.

    Also: The world is much bigger and complex than just china on one side and english, coca cola, KFC, Yanke…eh..North-american cowboys, hollywood, fork and knife, ham and eggs for breakfast on the other side.

    Europe will teach you a good lession about diversity, where even neighbouring cities have their own dialect and customs!

    P.S.: The spoken does not imply to all chinese. I know many good chinese friends of mine who know that there is world beyond CCTV 9…

  19. europa,

    I’m just referencing to how “waiguo” is constantly refered to as though it was a place in existance, with a language and culture of its own. It usually involves things like “in waiguo country, you all (stereotypical behavior), you all eat (stereotypical food), etc. I just like to remind people I’m not from the great country of Foreignton, which doesn’t even exist.

  20. Oh guys, just take it easy.

    We must live with it, so we can either ignore it or just make a bit of fun out of it.

    I got two kids and my wife is chinese. You can imagine, folks taking pics, some of them asking for permission, some of them without a word, hellos on your face and on your back, etc, etc.

    I already came to terms with it and accepted that i cannot change China, and that i am living in China.

    I do not get angry at that anymore, just shoot a smile back and kindly refuse if someone wants to take a picture or start a simple talk.

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