Lao Wais

Everyone agrees, Tianjin is harder for a foreigner than Beijing and Shanghai, because you’re always the only lao wai (foreigner) around. Beijing has expat enclaves in San Li Tun and HouHai; Shanghai has the French concession – they won’t even answer in Chinese at the Gloria Jeans Coffee there. In Tianjin, staff at Starbucks often struggle to understand ‘expresso’. But I discovered a different form of multilingualism here, when I saw the restaurant menu was written in both Chinese and Japanese.

I actually had one of my most important Asian ‘haha’ moments at a Tianjin supermarket, around a similar discovery. I saw an ‘imported food section’, and went there looking for pesto, vine leaves and nutella. Instead of that, I found a bag of dry tuna flakes, wasabi and sake. It took me just that little moment to realise – that was imported food as well.

So, as a game, I started spotting traces of Japan and Korea. And I tried to experience them as multiculturally exotic (as much as Italians are in Australia). With my little eye, I spotted platters of sushi in a supermarket.

‘Japanese dinnering’ in Magnetic City

Some Korean beauty place inside a shopping mall.

And on NanLuoGuXiang, in Beijing, a Japanese everything cool shop.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon: many places with Japanese or Korean writing were not in traditional East Asian style, but superficially Euro-international, following a kind of cute-eurotic aesthetics, like that ‘Cafe Alice’.

The best example would be the ‘Austrian style’ shopping steet of Magnetic City, around the E-Mart Centre – a Korean development in faux Austrian style, with a bubble tea shop, a Lotte supermarket, and fake flowers hanging from hooks, along the faux-lattice wood facade.

Am I really the only lao wai around, I started wondering? Or are these “Asians” around me just as displaced as myself?

The place started bringing back me this quintessential Australian experience, on my first trip, at Box Hill central, when I saw two red-hair girls passing in school uniforms, sipping bubble tea from a plastic cup, smiling at an Asian family sitting there. Maybe, local Tianjiners who saw me queuing behind a Korean teenager at the bubble tea counter in the Austrian style city would experience a similar sense of eur-asianism and global citizenship?

One thought on “Lao Wais

  1. There are tons of Koreans in Tianjin…my friend (Korean) said he can live in the city without speaking any Chinese.

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