Noel Smith

7 minute read

The Five Flavors of Laowais

I was four months in China before I finally decided it was time for a burger and fries. Upon my arrival to a little-known provincial capital, I was set on diving deep into the culture, and one way of doing that was by embracing the local cuisine. After all, I went to China to do the craziest thing I could think of, and living in a foreign land to eat hamburgers every day just didn’t make sense. When I finally did break down, when I finally couldn’t stomach another bowl of noodles or kung pao chicken, I had McDonald’s every meal for almost a week until I was sick to my stomach. Literally! My first bout of food poisoning in China wasn’t from the dirty street food tossed in gutter oil that I ate regularly. It was from a big mac.

Months after my experience at McDonald’s, I finally broke down and ate KFC. I hated KFC. To tell you the truth, even in my hometown in the States I hardly ever ate KFC. But Chinese people love KFC, and it is by far more popular than McDonalds. Over time, I began to eat there more often since KFCs were always conveniently located. But I still much preferred McDonald’s. One reason I enjoyed McDonald’s so much is because, for the most part, a Big Mac in China tastes like a Big Mac back home. Sure, McDonald’s experimented with different flavors and menu items—like the quarter-pounder with spicy thousand island-ish sauce and sliced cucumbers. But entering KFC was like entering a new dimension. I had to scan over strange items on the menu, like congee and doujiang (soymilk), before finding my sausage & egg biscuit and coffee in the morning.

But even though I’m a McDonald’s kind of guy, I’d have to say that I aspired to be a KFC kind of laowai. What I mean by this is not so much about my preference for the food, as for the way these food chains adapt to the Chinese market. In other words, while McDonald’s stayed mostly true to itself and worked hard to maintain not only its American feel but also its original menu, which is why I actually enjoyed eating there in the first place, KFC adapted to the local palate. That is, McDonald’s was the symbol of cultural imperialism and inflexibility, while KFC was a cultural ambassador that was willing to listen and learn from the locals.

But KFC and McDonald’s are not the only fast food restaurants in China. Here I will also use Pizza Hut, Burger King and Li Xiansheng (Mr. Lee’s Noodles) to flesh out my vision of the five flavors of laowais in China. I should first point out that I recognize there are more than five fast food restaurants in China. I also know there is much more diversity in the laowai community. But for the sake of using the magic number 5—the five elements, the five regional cuisines, the five flavors (salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, and sour)—I will explore the five flavors of laowai to summarize the five kinds of foreigners I’ve personally encountered during my years in China.

McDonald’s Laowai

McDonalds

The McDonald’s laowai is perhaps the most stereotypical laowai. You can change a few ingredients, maybe add a cucumber to a burger, but in the end, you don’t really change the final product. The McDonald’s laowai thinks it’s his duty to train Chinese to do things his or her way. McDonald’s laowais seek to change China’s tastes, rather than change their own ingredients. They are usually fresh off the boat and always partying—open 24 hours. For Chinese who want to practice their English or get a feel of what things are really like abroad, they should hang out with the McDonald’s laowai.

Burger King Laowai

Burger King

The Burger King Laowai is a lot like the McDonald’s laowai in that there aren’t many alterations to the menu. But Burger King laowais are dressed much nicer on the outside, and there are fewer of them in China than McDonald’s laowais. I like to think of the average foreign businessman in China as the Burger King laowai because you don’t see them often, and when you do, they are almost always found in city centers and shopping malls. Burger King laowais and McDonald’s laowais are similar in that they both refuse to change their offerings. But whereas McDonald’s laowais actively try to enter all levels of society in China to proselytize, Burger King laowais only want to do business with middle-class Chinese people who have just the right amount of economic and western cultural capital. That is to say, Burger King laowais hang out mostly with Chinese people who have enough international travel experience to appreciate their flame-grilled flavor.

Pizza Hut Laowai

Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut laowais are the old friends you thought you knew before they went to China. When they finally go back home to visit you, or you go to China to visit them, you realize they changed almost beyond recognition. Pizza Hut laowais become reinvented—they used to live in the hood back home, but now they act all classy and shit. In the words of James—our first podcast guest—they get a new bop in their step and act like they’re the shit. But even if Pizza Hut laowais try to counterfeit classiness, they aren’t fooling anyone—except maybe a handful of aspiring middle-class Chinese who don’t know any better. Pizza Hut laowais usually speak pretty decent Chinese and they start to pick up a few cultural habits and tastes, but when you scratch below the surface, and look under the corn and durian and quail egg pizza toppings, Pizza Hut laowais are still made of the same old stuff—pizza. For a closer look at Pizza Hut menu items in China, and to get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out these links: http://www.pizzahut.com.cn/HomePage/Index and http://www.pizzahut.com.cn/Product

KFC Laowai

KFC

KFC laowais are your laowais of no return. If it wasn’t for seeing their exterior—that non-Chinese exterior (i.e. the black, brown, or white skin)—you wouldn’t know they were laowais. Like the fast food chain KFC, KFC laowais have been in China longer than all the other laowais. But unlike the actual KFC restaurants, which are the most common in China, KFC laowais are few and far between. KFC laowais still have friends with other brands of laowais, but it’s hard on both of them in their relationship. The KFC laowai seems strange and unfamiliar—like a sellout and shell of their former selves—to the McDonald’s, Burger King, or Pizza Hut laowai, and the other laowais seem static, intolerable and a reminder of everything KFC laowais hated about their home before arriving in China. KFC laowais expend their greatest effort on cultivating friendships with the local Chinese and changing their own actions and tastes to be more readily accepted. Even though locals know the KFC laowai was born abroad, they also see great Chinese influence on the menu, and they like them more as a result.

Li Xiansheng – Mr. Lee’s Laowai

Mr. Lees

Unlike the four fast food chains mentioned above, Mr. Lee’s probably needs an introduction for most readers. Located mainly in large cities, Mr. Lee’s is a very popular fast food noodle house in various northern parts of China. Unlike KFC, which advertises the face of a laowai—AKA Colonel Sanders—Mr. Lee’s storefront sign showcases the face of Mr. Lee himself, a Chinese-American who opened the first store in China in 1988. That is, Mr. Lee is Chinese on the surface but foreign below. The Chinese actually have a derogatory term to refer to these types of laowais—xiangjiao (banana). As it was explained to me, bananas are yellow on the outside and white on the inside. To apply this to the five flavors of laowais in China, Mr. Lee’s laowais—although they are laowais in the sense that they are foreign and come from outside of China—are actually not laowais in the true sense of the word because they still look Chinese on the outside. The average laowai doesn’t know that the Mr. Lee laowai is foreign, and the average Chinese doesn’t either. Today there is a growing number of Mr. Lee laowais in China teaching English and roots-searching only to find they are not readily accepted by either of the other laowais or the Chinese locals themselves.

Again I recognize that there is more diversity in the laowai community than the five archetypes presented above. Thus, if you have another flavor of laowai or an example of one of the aforementioned flavors please share it in the comments below.

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