When I was living in Changchun in the 1990’s it was common to field requests to be “token foreigners” at various events or productions. Changchun is home to one of China’s largest film studios so whenever a director was in need of a foreign face for a film, he/she would call up the Foreign Student Office at Northeast Normal University and ask to borrow some foreigners.
Sometimes the officials in that office would ask us; other times they would announce that we were being taken on an outing and haul us off to the studio. Of course we never got paid; were told that it was a good opportunity to practice our Chinese. Mostly we sat around all day, drinking tea and talking amongst ourselves.
One year another student and I, a young man from Ghana, were asked to appear in a local television commercial for some kind of medicine. We spent all day mastering the phrase “[name of medicine], hao yao!” (good medicine). We had to say it in a certain rhythm, in unison, with big smiles on our faces. For some reason, it took hours for us to deliver the lines just as the director wanted us to.
As we were leaving the studio, I belatedly said to my co-star, “I suppose we should have asked what the medicine was. With my luck we have just been featured in an advertisement for birth control!”
A couple of weeks later a Chinese friend called and excitedly told me that she’d seen the ad on TV.
“What kind of medicine was it advertising?” I asked, somewhat nervously.
“Cold medicine,” she replied.
Whew! Another linguistic bullet dodged!
I thought of all that when I saw this short New York Times documentary titled “Rent-a-Foreigner in China.” It’s about a housing development in Chongqing that uses “rented” foreigners to attract customers.
“Once you put a foreigner out there, everything changes.”
That’s right. For some reason a foreign presence gives face, a truth that I think we foreigners may never understand.