The word “oily” has become a buzzword overnight as an article titled How to avoid becoming an oily middle-aged man went viral, causing hot discussion on China’s social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, followed by endless headlines with a similar theme that replaced middle-aged man with middle-aged women, young people and various professions. The adjective refers to being cynical, acting entitled or belittling others. However, when the term refers to foreigners and expats, Chinese people have their own interesting yet thought-provoking insights.
What are “oily expats” in the eyes of Chinese, and what are “fresh expats” that Chinese people want to become friends with? Metropolitan spoke to people who have had rich experiences getting to know different nationals and asked for their opinions on the topic.
Oily and unwanted
1. Superiority based on having a foreign face
“I have to say that most foreign nationals I know are very nice people, but there is one type of expat that makes me very uncomfortable,” said Vivian Peng, who has been working in foreign trade for years. She thinks an “oily expat” refers to someone who pretends to be sophisticated with global vision when they actually come from a low-class or unsuccessful background in their home country.
“A foreign face doesn’t guarantee a broader horizon or a global mind, and it is pointless playing international elites if you are not,” Peng said, stressing that earning a large income just by having a foreign face does not work in China anymore.
There was a time in the past when a foreigner was rarely seen in China and locals worshiped foreign things, described as chong yang mei wai in Chinese, but “things have changed,” according to Peng. He added that in cities like Beijing where population diversity is high, people will not treat you more favorably in the workplace just because of your exotic background.
2. Mr or Mrs Unhappy
Oily expats are also unhappy people who always complain about everything and refuse to embrace a new life in the local environment.
“They feel suffering living here, refuse to learn anything Chinese and the only reason for their stay is for work,” said Ba Yingxuan, a PR manager in Beijing. She feels sympathetic to this type of oily expat since they miss out on opportunities to explore something new in a different country and enjoy their lives in China, saying that their pessimistic attitude drives people away.
China has been open to the world for a long time and what Chinese people expect is real and genuine communication, instead of only polite greetings and warm receptions. Sophia Hou agrees.
“Their pet phrases are ‘this is wrong’ or ‘that is wrong,’ and ‘I have the right for this or that,’ but they have not considered integrating into the local society,” said Hou.
3. A false sense of charm
“Some guys will use their identity of laowai (foreigner) to show exaggerated enthusiasm, overly praise you or pretend to be close to you,” said Hou, who works in Beijing. She finds it hard to stand the oiliness of those who pretend to be overly interested in order to gain trust and feelings from an unsuspecting Chinese girl.
Chinese people are more subtle and reserved, whereas Westerners are more outgoing and open, which is totally fine, but it makes one uncomfortable if their enthusiasm is fake, Hou said. “It’s good just to be real and natural.”
Meanwhile, some say this type of oiliness is seen in bars when some expats boast about their exotic life experiences to try and hook up with girls with what they think of as “foreigners’ advantages.”
“They would first buy you some drinks in a bar, boast about their country afterward and then ask you to their apartment or hotel,” said Li Tong (pseudonym), adding that some foreign men enjoy being a “playboy” among local girls and even boast about their “dating skills.”
1. Sincere and open to diversity
“You can communicate with them openly and sincerely, without scruples or guard,” said Gao Fei, translator of the Chinese edition of The How To Be British Collection, when referring to “fresh expats” she likes to be friends with.
She cited a Catalan friend she met in Barcelona as an example. He is kind, outgoing and curious about different cultures, and he has a strong interest in China and Asia. She said that he has an independent mind and that they can have in-depth conversations, instead of just greeting each other or showing interest out of politeness.
“To befriend a foreigner works the same as with a Chinese. To hit it off, you should have a certain understanding of each others’ social and cultural backgrounds and have common interests,” Gao said. Being a friend is a long-term thing, and friendship doesn’t grow on the surface of implosive minds, she added.
2. Rich experience and worldly
In addition, being knowledgeable and experienced in different parts of the world is another feature of fresh expats.
“I prefer to make friends with those who have traveled a lot and are well-informed on differences of various countries and cultures so that they accept and appreciate the beauty of diversity from the bottom of their hearts,” said Cai Yun, a Chinese PhD student in Canada.
Cai said fresh expats choose friends based on people’s personalities, instead of nationality or regions, and the best way to avoid being oily is to go out and see the world and to broaden one’s horizon.
3. Love Chinese culture
“Most of my foreign friends love Chinese culture and make an effort to get to know more,” said Ba. Some of them are keen on Chinese medicine; some are passionate about Chinese movies and many have been to China many times. Ba feels very relaxed and happy getting along with them.
“They also like to eat haw flakes and stir-fried egg and tomato, and we have a common love for music and films,” Ba said, adding that “oiliness” exists everywhere, and that also applies to Chinese people; keeping an open mind without bias is the key to staying “fresh.”
What expats say
As to the Chinese insight of oiliness in expats, foreigners give their own opinions.
“We don’t like oily expats in our foreign community either, and I like those who can integrate into Chinese culture and society,” said Alvaro Lago, who comes from Spain and has worked in Beijing for years.
As for expats who act superior based on their foreign faces, he adds that lazy expats who have little capacity, cannot find a job at home and come to China to teach English usually belong to this group. “Some of them are not even native English speakers, but they use their foreign faces to teach; I think that is very oily.”
Lago also said that oily foreigners are those who pretend to know everything about China and boast about their close connection to China in front of other foreign nationals, which he frequently sees on international flights.
“They show off their Chinese proficiency and their knowledge about China, but they speak broken Chinese and know little about the country,” said Lago, stressing that more and more foreigners are proud of working and living in China as the country’s global influence grows.
Similar to Ba and Gao’s opinion, expats stress that the oiliness is not specific to certain nationalities and nobody likes an oily person.
“We all want others to be open and honest with us because trust is what makes a relationship – in personal life, in business or simply as a friend,” said Brian Salter, a media expert working in Beijing, stressing that to develop better relationships with people from different cultural and social backgrounds, understanding human psychology is the key.
“If someone is interesting to talk with, they are more of a pleasure to be with; if they are genuinely interested in your culture and background, there is more scope for developing a relationship that can lead to true friendship. This is all basic human psychology and is not confined to one nationality or another.”