Insiders and Outsiders are Different

When I first went to China many years ago, one of the things that I and my American colleagues found most annoying about living there was the difference in price between what we paid for things and what our Chinese friends had to pay. For us, a train ticket was 400 yuan; for our Chinese friends it was 200. Why? Because there was a “foreign price” and a “Chinese price.”  End of discussion, thank you very much.

Since there are not many things that upset an American faster than feeling like he/she is being ripped off, this two-tiered pricing structure was a constant irritant.

Mutianyu Great Wall

In the mid-1990’s, while studying Chinese, I stumbled across a Chinese expression that was a ‘key’ to helping me understand what was going on. I was working through a textbook called Speaking of Chinese Culture that taught about key Chinese cultural rules and values. One chapter was on this Chinese concept called nei wai you bie (内外有别), which means “insiders and outsiders are different.”

I asked my tutor how this notion played itself out in every day life, and she said, “Well, it’s why you have to pay more for the entrance ticket to the park than I do.”

“You mean, they’re not doing it merely to cheat me?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “Why should you, as an outsider be treated the same as an insider?”

Lights, bells, and whistles went off in my head, exploding in a cacophony of comprehension. Suddenly, so many other things that I had seen and experienced began to make sense.

A few years later, I was studying with a professor in Beijing who added to my understanding by explaining to me that the clearest example of the concept was The Great Wall. (Hmm…that’s not what the tourist posters say.)

In the Chinese worldview, there are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners. Unlike the English usage of the word “foreigner,” which is a relative term, in Chinese it is absolute. Like the terms Jews and Gentiles, they are mutually exclusive. A Chinese cannot be a foreigner and a foreigner cannot be a Chinese.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to teach an orientation session for a group of Chinese high school students visiting Minnesota for 2 weeks. I started off with a little “worldview disruption” activity. I asked them a question, “shenme shi waiguoren?” (“什么是外国人?”) What is a foriegner?

Even though I could tell by the looks on some of their faces that they suspected it was a trick question, 3000+ years of education and cultural conditioning led them to shout with one accord “You are!”

“Wrong,” I said. “For the next two weeks, YOU are!”

They laughed, firm in their belief that I had gone stark-raving mad.

I also saw this illustrated vividly in Beijing many years ago when I attended a talk given by Israel Epstein, a then 89-year-old White Russian Jew who had come to China as a 5-year old to escape the pogroms in Russia. He had stayed on in China, becoming a Chinese citizen, and becoming active in the revolution that brought the Communists to power. He even became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

I went to the talk with some Chinese friends, and afterwards pressed them on this point. “In your eyes,” I asked, “is he a Chinese or a foreigner?” They all agreed that, notwithstanding his 80+ of living in China, and his Chinese citizenship, he was still a foreigner.”

Traditional Chinese culture does not hold that “all men are created equal.” Instead, it is not only acceptable, but also proper, for different kinds of people to be treated differently. This is the way the world is ordered. A two-tierd price structure is not a problem to be solved; rather it is the way it should be.

Interestingly enough, China did away with the official price discrepancies in the late 1990’s in order to meet WTO requirements, but unofficially it still remains in place. A foreigner will often pay more for vegetables in the market than his/her Chinese housekeeper.

Sometimes this concept cuts the foreigner’s way, however, since the strong sense of hospitality in Chinese culture dictates that guests be treated with utmost honor and respect. While we may be foreigners, we are also waibin (foreign guests), and are therefore entitled to certain privileges and opportunities that are not afforded to locals. Sometimes we’ll be escorted to the front of lines; sometimes ushered into the pews at the front of a church or assembly even as Chinese are being moved out. It may go against my western notion of fair play, but in China, it’s what you do for a foreign guest. It’s just being polite.

Living well where you don’t belong means graciously living as an outsider, with all the accompanying frustrations and undeserved privileges.