A Foreign Face

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.

Crackdown of the Month – Illegal Foreigners

Beijing_police_visa_check_crackdownThe Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) has just launched a 100-day campaign to "clean out" all the foreigners who are living and working in town illegally. I must admit I'm not thrilled with the phrasing of their announcement. It seems to conjur up competing images in my head — one of hapless underground English teachers being rounded up and deposited at the purgatory that is Capital Airport Terminal 3; the other of public health officials showing up at the doors of illegal foreigners handing out boxes of laxatives.

To be fair, different English language media outlets have translated the phrase in question as "clean out," "clean up," and "clamp down."

Never mind….if there are foreigners in town illegally (and there must be, otherwise why the need for the crackdown?), they aim to find them. In fact, they have even set up a hotline where local residents can call to report 'suspicous foreigners' in their neighborhoods!

For those of you who've been around for awhile, particulary in the run-up to the Olympics, this will be a familiar drill.  Been there, done that!

When the 100 days are over, this crackdown will wane, and there will be something new that needs the government's attention…and PRESTO–we'll have a new crackdown-of-the-month!

Here are previous crackdowns I've written about:

It's a Dog's Life, or Should I say, Death

Crackdown on English

Who's Minding the Crackdown?

Your Turn, Shanghai. Good Lucky!

(image source: The Beijinger)