One element of life in Beijing that became increasingly apparent the longer I stayed there was that being foreign affects the way others treat you. My most notable anecdote about approachability comes from the security guard working at the front desk of the extremely large gym/stadium complex at Tsinghua University. I had parked my bike outside, and so sooner had I locked it I realized he was staring at me. It was a little strange, but as I walked by he asked me where I was from. After I said America his eyes lit up and he started speaking to me in English. Apparently he was studying for exams to enter Tsinghua law school, and one of the parts he had trouble with was the English section. He actually was holding a list of difficult English words that he was currently studying- immediately he asked me how to pronounce several words. Over the next few weeks we had several similar interactions; usually he would speak English and I would speak Chinese, with some crossover to explain words to each other. Through him I also met several others at the front desk. Although previously I had notice them staring, it was only when they realized I could speak Chinese that they started talking to me. Unfortunately they usually started excitedly speaking rapid-fire, leaving me struggling to understand.
These experiences left me with two contrasting ideas about approachability in Beijing. The first is that Westerners are more approachable because many people will try the practice English with you. The contrasting second idea is that may people assume foreigners don’t speak Chinese and so they won’t try to talk to you. While both appear contradictory, I think the concepts actually work together.
Somewhat frequently people will come up to you and try to practice their English, making you immediately approachable. I noticed that if I wore shirts with English printing on them, then Tsinghua students would be much more likely to come up to me and speak English. The interesting part was that I felt that these people were less interested in the actual event and more about just practicing their language ability. What I mean is that I was not particularly interesting to them, but rather they valued my usefulness as an English speaker. In these conversations if I spoke in Chinese they would reply in English, even if their English was very hard for me to understand. In a way I understood this mentality because I was approaching these conversations in the same way, as an opportunity to practice conversational Chinese.
The second idea about approachability was that people were actively intimidated by the language barrier and wouldn’t try to speak with you. The moment these people heard me speaking Chinese they would act very friendly. After I spoke briefly to people at the front desk, every time I would go to the gym they would be extremely friendly and ask me a lot of questions. This actually served as an inconvenience because it took up a significant amount of time. What I learned was some Chinese people will not try to speak to foreigners unless they are aware that that foreigner already speaks Mandarin.
My explanation for this phenomenon is that people can view you in several different ways. For some educated people you are simply a tool for them to study, while for others less familiar with Westerners they are more likely to treat you like a fascinating bauble.