How Not To Be A Dick In A Foreign Country

Note to self: Do not be a dick. It’s a mandate that I’ve failed at from time to time during my nearly five years in China.
Publish date:
August 11, 2013
traveling, how not to be a dick

A lot of How Not to Be a Dick articles have been popping up on xoJane recently, most of them (rightly) written from the point of view of the person at the receiving end of the dickery. This isn’t one of those. It’s more a reminder to myself to behave myself while enjoying the wonderful opportunity I’ve had to live and work in another country. Note to self: Do not be a dick, do not be a dick, do not be a DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICK.

Suffice to say, it’s a mandate that I’ve failed at from time to time during my nearly five years in China.

Let’s set a scene. It was a freezing cold afternoon about two days before Christmas. I’d been working all day, and indeed all week, hardly taking a break from the pile of marking on my desk. The approaching holiday had left me homesick, as it usually does, and I was at the bank trying to exchange money to send home to cover both my student loans for that month and a surprise Christmas gift for my mother (funds to buy a plane ticket and come visit me).

Sending money home is a big stressor for me, because it’s a long procedure and something always seems to go wrong. I always go into the bank tense with the expectation of my oncoming failure. As usual, on this trip, something did go wrong. What was more, the woman behind the front counter glared at me, or at least I perceived that she did.

So I cried, publicly, in the bank. I didn’t want to, and I wish I hadn’t, and it attracted a shit ton of attention without actually helping my case in any way.

Leaving the bank, I could only think what a spoiled first-world brat I must have seemed, and how I must have embodied in five minutes every negative thing people have ever thought about my country.

I’ve to some degree forgiven myself for being the fat American woman having a foot stomping hissy fit in the Bank of China, but at the same time I’ll certainly never go inside that particular branch again.

There’s one story of my dickish anti-glory. A dick is not something that I want to be, and I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s not what most people reading this article aspire towards either. And thus, without further preamble, I give you my list of tips for not being a dick abroad.

Don’t assume that people don’t know your native language.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that this is especially true if your native language is English. Just because somebody is not confident speaking it doesn’t mean they can’t understand you. There’s nothing ruder than talking about somebody behind their back when their back is less than a foot away from yours.

But don’t expect people to know your native language either.

Even if that language is English.

Think before frustration turns you racist.

On many occasions I’ve had locals jump out in front of me and steal taxis I was just about to catch. The temptation to whine about how CHINESE PEOPLE KEEP STEALING MY TAXIS is strong, until I consider the fact that I am in China, and Chinese people being the majority of the population, of course they are the ones stealing my taxis.

If I were in America the people stealing my taxis, and committing whatever other random offenses set my blood boiling, would be primarily other Americans. In this case I would not be swearing under my breath about how Americans keep doing <insert frustrating behavior here>, I’d be swearing about how people keep doing it. I need to make sure to always employ that same mode of thinking here.

Also, about that time I jumped gleefully in front of an old man with a gaping head wound to take a taxi that clearly should have been his while cackling, “I win! I win! At last I win!" That was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.

You are not an extra-special gift to the country you are residing in, by virtue of being foreign.

I’m a foreign English teacher who works at a primary school that employs about twenty fresh foreign teachers a year. Some of them are of the opinion that they’ve come to save the children and teach the locals about the right way to do education.

That isn’t how it goes. We fill a specific need, and also we make a lot of money for the school by virtue of being novel. Being from far away does not make our opinions and deeds more important, even though it certainly might make them different. Locals don’t have to listen to us any more than they would any other person. In fact, there are a lot of cases where it would make sense for them to take our opinions less into account, particularly when we’re fresh-faced and new and just don’t get it.

Being abroad doesn’t mean you get to do anything you want and have it not count.

Moving to another country does not give you a free pass to spend your Friday nights rampaging drunken through the streets carrying the artwork that you stole from the bars before taking a quick pit stop to sleep with ALL the prostitutes. I mean, if that was your typical Friday night back home, or those are choices you’d be comfortable with making regardless of where you are in the world, then go for it, I guess (though I’m a prude and generally in favor of NOT going for it).

People have different ideas of what constitutes bad behavior. That said, doing something you would consider morally wrong back home does not suddenly become hilarious just because you are far from that home.

Be aware of how much time you spend complaining.

A fellow American who has been in China for eight years now told me that he’s been distancing himself from other foreigners these days because whenever we get to together in a big group, it turns into a huge gripe about China session. I’m of the opinion that there is some room for complaints, not because China is terrible, but because culture shock is real, and home-sickness is real, and the feeling of being constantly different and other even long after the point when culture shock and home-sickness should have passed is real too.

That said, if you ever reach the point where every other thing you say is something negative about your host country, then it’s worth considering whether or not this is because you only have negative feelings towards it. If not, then lighten up a little. If so, maybe it’s time to think about going home, if that’s a possibility for you.

When I stop my reflexive complaints and think about how I feel about my current situation, I realize very quickly that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and the footprints on the seat of Chicony Mall’s one Western toilet actually aren’t a big deal at all.

Also, check the random mockery.

I’m so guilty of this, and quite ashamed to admit it (particularly on this website). I don’t know how long I’ve been doing things like reaching for a bottle of ice cold water while sarcastically chirping to the other non-locals assembled: “Well, that’s it! I guess I’m going to die now!” (hot water is considered infinitely more healthy here), but it needs to stop.

That’s not the same as venting to a friend when I’m genuinely upset and frustrated. It’s me making an unfair judgment call about another culture, and it’s not even a judgment call that has any reason to be made. Nobody is trying to pry my cold water out of my hands.

It’s okay to take a break from it all.

If you’re on holiday, and you need some time in your room with a book, or at the local McDonald’s with a burger, take it. I’m lucky in that I live in China for the long term, so I’m not under any pressure to fly about seeing everything around the country that I want to as quickly as I can, even though there are still things that I desperately want to see. I spend time each day locked in my room reading xoJane or writing stupid Little Women fic in English, and not thinking of where I am.

There’s a little Irish pub that I go to about twice a month that my English friends say feels like England, and my Canadian friends say feels like Canada, and I say feels like home. Things like that keep me sane.

And thus ends my list of advice. I only hope that I can achieve all of it. It all sounds easy, but I find that it actually takes a great deal of awareness and effort. Is there anything else I should have included? For those of you who have spent time living outside of your home country, how easy or difficult have you found it to adjust?

Here I am preparing to perform surgery on this Panda.

(Not really. This is what they make you wear if you want to cuddle a panda in Chengdu.)