Getting to know more foreigners

Body: 

A tall and handsome soon-to-graduate Chinese college student stood next to me as we talked. After a few minutes, he turned to make direct eye contact and hesitatingly admitted in a low voice, “Actually, I hate foreigners.”
He was the only student who was late with his assignment at the end of the semester. He was supposed to find an article about cross-cultural management and state his opinion. He said he couldn’t find an article, but I wasn’t buying it.
That’s when this student looked at me directly and admitted he hated foreigners.
I stood waiting in silence, returning his gaze and expecting more. Since most Chinese people are overwhelmingly positive about Americans and others, there had to be more to this story.
He continued, “There are a lot of rude foreigners where I work.” I didn’t doubt that he interacted with tourists and others who easily become impatient or annoyed when trying to communicate outside of their own familiar environments. Openly expressing disapproval or becoming loud are typical reactions. To the Chinese, who value self-control and the preservation of “face,” those behaviors are seen as rude.
The student expressed his desire to avoid a multicultural environment because of his bad experiences. The problem with avoiding foreigners, though, was that he would be limiting his own life.
I studied his youthful, slightly troubled face, then stated matter-of-factly, “Well, then you need to meet more foreigners, don’t you?” I shared one of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes: “I don’t like that man. I’m going to have to get to know him better.”
It is natural for us to want to avoid people that seem different and to run from those we don’t understand. If we recognize this human tendency, we can choose the counterintuitive path to move closer and gain a different perspective.
He brightened. “But you … are good.”
I smiled. “So … I’m OK?”
“No,” he replied, beginning to grin outright. “OK would be just in the middle. You are GOOD.”
Our conversation continued. Since this student had developed a positive rapport with me, a decidedly imperfect white foreigner from Duluth, it was possible that others might be worth the effort, too.
It’s an age-old story. Whenever individuals make the effort to truly get to know one another, fear and distrust lessen, giving respect and affection a chance to grow. Exchanges, that promote cross-border interactions between ordinary citizens, show we are all just people with similar hopes, fears, struggles and joys. When we come across those we don’t like – whether they are foreigners from across the seas or strangers from across the street – we can make the unexpected choice to get closer for a better look.
This student later handed in his assignment and aced the final exam. Travel not only helps us to see with new eyes, as the saying goes, but also gives us opportunities to bring new perspectives to those with whom we come in contact. I’m hopeful the lesson from this small encounter stays with this student as it does with me. After all, each one of us is a foreigner somewhere!

This is Anderson’s last column from China, although part of her heart will always remain there. She completed her business teaching assignment at Hong Kong Baptist University-Beijing Normal University in Zhuhai and returned to her home base in Duluth. She continues to write, consult with the National Rural Health Resource Center on leadership and strategic planning and lead MBA Capstone Abroad courses for the College of St. Scholastica. She can be reached at aandersonus@gmail.com.
Anderson’s most recent co-authored book, “New Scenic Café: The Cookbook,” was published earlier this year and is available at www.newsceniccafe.com.