If we are strangers, it’s difficult to be friends

Written for GoEast Mandarin

If you read media like SupChina, Sixthtone or ThatsMag, you’ve probably run into some of these headlines:

  • “Proposed immigration changes spark racist backlash in China”
  • ‘Draft law sparks online racism’
  • “Immigration plans spur hateful comments”
  • “Netizens outraged over proposed permanent residence rules”
  • “Backlash in China over draft rule on permanent residency for foreigners”

We would like to place some disclaimers with that! Because we understand that media run on sensation, but we do think it’s unnecessary mood making, and we don’t want foreigners to believe that all of China is against them.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Sixth Tone mentions one Q&A topic received over 150,000 replies, but that doesn’t equal 150,000 people, as often people start discussions and reply on each other (just like on Facebook). And while the top comments were negative, were they all? We don’t know. And even if all 150,000 comments were negative and even if they were all posted by individual people, then that’s only 0.03% of all monthly active Weibo users.

While the above headlines may make you think otherwise, the silent majority — of course — didn’t express their opinion publicly, if they even have an opinion about it at all. Yet media coverage will rarely highlight this.

Lastly, many comments are ill-informed. The Beijinger highlighted that the new proposed rules aren’t very different from the current regulations, and the new rules won’t exactly “open the floodgates to all foreigners” as many of the commenters believed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, some internet users have taken the coronavirus outbreak as a welcome excuse to splurt racist comments on China’s government and its people. Time magazine headlined: “As coronavirus spreads, so does xenophobia and anti-Asian racism”. Usually, these comments come from people that have never set foot in China and are extremely ill-informed.

And in this often lies the root of racist and xenophobic sentiments. Which brings us to our bigger, more timeless point.

If we are strangers, it’s difficult to be friends.

Strange things are scary; new dishes, different people. To divide people into ’them’ and ‘us’ is a human impulse. But once you break down barriers and get to know each other, you realize that differences aren’t as big as you think. Strangeness can draw out fear, as well as curiosity. Let us choose the latter.

In eight years, we’ve spent an incredible amount of time with students from all over the world, and while we’ve spoken a lot about their cultures and ours, we’ve never looked at them as different. In fact, many students have said they never think about us being Chinese, that they just see ‘us’ — and we tend to look at it the same way.

We really believe the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is not in the person being judged, but in the person judging. When we see a stranger as a friend, it does not mean that they have passed a level of moral maturity. It means that we have. An important thing to keep in mind in these turbulent times, and afterward.

Love and understanding. That is why we love learning languages and teaching Mandarin.