It’s called the Laowai Freeze Out, or LFO for short, and it’s one of the most irritating things about being a foreigner in China.
I was walking down the street one morning in the Ruijing area of Xiamen and I noticed another Caucasian foreign guy walking towards me. There wasn’t really many other people out on the streets this early, and we were bound to pass right by each other well within hello/ nod/ acknowledge-each-others-existence range. He obviously noticed me because he began intentionally looking over his shoulder across the street, as though staring really intently at something incredibly interesting, to make it seem as if he hadn’t noticed me.
And I knew it was coming.
I braced myself. I looked him in the face, ready to give my usual “Howyadoing,” but at the moment of our passing, where two polite Americans or Europeans or [enter name of many other cultures here] would normally exchange a greeting, a nod, or a smile, the guy intensified his fixation with the nothing he was looking at until he was safely by me.
I was crossing a street in a new residential part of Xiamen by the exhibition center. The population density is relatively low out here, which seems to draw in a lot foreigners looking for the “cleaner, better” version of Xiamen. Needless to say, when two people pass on the street here they notice each other, as there is rarely anyone else around. And so it went:
I crossed the street on my way to a little restaurant on the other side just as the other laowai began crossing to go in the opposite direction. Our paths were streamlined by a row of hedges that only had a narrow little footpath in between. You can’t get any closer when passing a stranger on the street as I was to this guy, and my culturally ingrained sense of social etiquette instinctively splayed my lips out into a smile, made my eyes search for a lock on his, and the “he” part of a hello pass from my lips. But I cut the greeting short, and tried to reel it back in.
Too late. I was gotten.
The young American/ Canadian looking guy, suddenly yanked out his phone and flung his gaze down towards it right as he briskly walked by me. Vroooom.
I had just walked out of my apartment complex and into the street and I saw a young, white, Western girl walking towards me. It was obvious that she lived in the same place I do, and I watched as she crossed the street and began walking towards me on a narrow sidewalk that’s lined with trees and high shrubs on both sides. We may as well have been walking towards each other through a gauntlet, there was nobody else on the street, nothing going on anywhere — it was just me and her walking towards each other. I watched as her shoulders constricted up and her movements became awkwardly robotic. The potentiality of passing close to another foreigner within greeting range was clearly punking her out. At the moment of our passing I looked her in the
eye sunglasses and said, “Good morning.” She stormed right by with her gazed locked on the shrubs growing at the edge of the sidewalk.
This is called the Laowai Freeze Out, or LFO for short. It’s a strange social phenomenon in China that happens when one foreigner passes by another and refuses to acknowledge their presence, which often goes against the grain of both parties’ socialized sense of politeness.
Now, I don’t mean that a foreigner in China should go around picking every laowai they see out of the crowd just to hello to them and claim them as “their own kind.” What I’m talking about here are those situations that a Westerner just naturally feels obliged to exchange a brief greet or an act of acknowledge with a person they come within close proximity to. Situations like passing by someone on an otherwise empty and quiet street.
Chinese people can gracefully walk right by people they don’t know without acknowledging them, regardless of circumstance, and not feel awkward about it. They don’t look awkward doing this, they don’t feel weird about it, and it doesn’t feel strange or abrupt when they do it to you. Chinese people can’t freeze people out because they don’t feel culturally compelled to acknowledge the presence of strangers to begin with. It’s just not something their acculturated to do.
This is different for Westerners because stomping by in close proximity to someone without acknowledging them just feels awkward to us. The givers of LFO feel awkward, the receivers feel awkward — it’s an awkward situation to approach someone without knowing what social protocol to follow. And these feeling is completely evident. In the three examples I cited above, the person who gave me LFO acted nervously and unnaturally before doing so (people just don’t normally walk down the street with their heads glued over their shoulders looking the wrong way). It’s like they’re mentally fumbling over what to do:
“Do I say hello? What if they give me the freeze out?”
“Do I give them the freeze out? What if they say hello?”
“What’s the social protocol here!?!”
Laowai Freeze Out is also contagious. You may not catch it on the first or second exposure, but when you find it happening to you over and over again there is reasonable chance that you’re going to pick it up and start spreading it to others.
To be blunt, preparing to nod and say hello to someone just to have them blow right by you, purposefully trying to ignore your existence, just feels stale. So LFO eventually becomes a defensive strategy:
I’ll do it to them before they can do it to me. Hehehe.
No, this isn’t something that just happens to me. From a comment on a post at Beijing Cream:
It’s more like the Laowai Freeze Out.
It happened to me here in Shenyang just the other day. Some fat-assed white grandfather type in shorts and a visor passed by me on a narrow sidewalk without any other foot traffic in the vicinity. We were close enough to touch. I nodded towards him as he went by, and he simply looked the other way while avoiding any eye contact, which clearly involved much conscious effort on his part.
LFO seems to be something that tends to be practiced more by newbies to China who are trying to give the impression that they know what’s up and are comfortable with the lay of a land they are truly insecure in. I know when someone has been in China for a long time and is comfortable here because he/ she will look me in the eye and smile, or nod, or say “Good morning,” or “Hello,” or “How ya doing?” They are comfortable here, comfortable with their own culture, and their place in this country. They are no longer pretending to be anything other than what they are and always will be: laowais.
The conflict here is that foreigners are NOT Chinese and we tend to feel slightly different social impulses than Chinese do. Yes, culture is real. So even though we’re in China, no matter how hard we try we can’t give LFO without feeling awkward.
Culture is something that’s ingrained into us that we can’t get rid of, alter, or adulterate just by crossing a border. Our acculturation is something that’s set in place when we’re children and will always be with us — no matter where we go, no matter what we do, we can’t shake it. Our subtle reactions, our automatic responses, our perceptions of what constitutes respect and politeness and proper social protocol — the deep aspects of culture — are hardwired into us and will never change.
Within any country, within every culture, there are different social spheres and situations that requires a different set of behavior. We’d be fools to go into a culture and enact only one rigid way of acting no matter who we’re talking to or in proximity of. Interacting with Chinese people requires one set of protocol, interacting with Americans another, Indians yet another, etc . . . and the types of behavior/ signs of respect/ indications of politeness that we expect from each culture group changes as well. We do these cultural code-shifts naturally, often without thought.
Coming to China (or Japan, as they have their own equivalent of LFO there) is apparently enough to throw many Westerner’s cultural equilibriums off, and many don’t seem to know whether they should try to act Chinese or act like themselves.
Or maybe they really are just simply snobs?
Either way, I don’t apologize if I’ve ever stomped upon your exotic China fantasy by saying hello.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
October 30, 2013, 12:22 pm
It’s just not China, it is Asia wide. I hate it. I say hi to people I meet and I don’t let them get to me.
October 30, 2013, 6:35 pm
I noticed this in shanghai as well. I thought that living in shanghai makes people indifferent towards eachother.
October 31, 2013, 11:18 am
This is happening to me in Oregon. It does feel unbearable to walk by someone close, with no greeting, I thought this was my own weirdness. I get snubbed all the time on walks. I always view these snubbers as socially awkwards. I typically look at the ground or the other direction when it is a man I don’t deem a family man, or a sufficiently old geezer. No wonder there are men out there that hate women. How alienating.
October 31, 2013, 12:54 pm
It’s all over China and living in a very small city (Village according to Chinese standards) it’s the most awkward thing ever. There is a total population of 3 foreigners here, myself, a colleague, and… some other guy. Said other guy speaks absolutely no Chinese (according to a friendly cab driver). My colleague ran into him down town and he gave her a LFO! I mean, I get we don’t need to be friends, but, don’t isolate yourself like that! At least nod if you don’t want to talk…
Same goes with a girl I saw at the airport coming in from a trip. She had clearly just landed, saw me and just fixated her phone. I honestly don’t understand…
Tiny village, no foreigners, the least we can do is acknowledge each others existence… unless it’s one of those ”I want to stay special” kind of thing?
November 3, 2013, 6:00 am
This is a very relevant article to my recent experiences. Since I’ve been traveling in Japan, I have been doing this to other foreigners, and I didn’t really know why, but then, one day, another foreigner bowed to me. Just a gentle nod, but it was just the same as I would give to a Japanese person I was passing by on a lonely road, so I have been bowing to other foreigners ever since. That way, we’re both sharing in this novel cultural experience, and we’re not necessarily obligated to speak to each other.
I think that the motivation for my rudeness before was based on my own acute social anxiety, and my desire to not speak to other English speakers, but that’s just stupid. There are many interesting and sophisticated foreigners living in the countryside areas where I am, and I would like to give them the respect that they, like any other person I come across, deserves. So, I think the solution to the freeze out is just to treat them as you would another native person. If they decide to initiate conversation with you, then you can decide whether you want to continue on with them. To freeze someone out based on race is super racist, and I can’t believe that I was engaging in that kind of shameful behavior. I’m glad that I came across this article.
November 9, 2013, 12:05 pm
I am a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Guiyang, Guizhou, China. I first experienced a different kind of LFO during training in Chengdu at Sichuan Normal University this summer. While we were training, there were also a number of European college students on campus for summer study abroad. The first time our groups crossed paths, we all coolly eyed each other, waiting…maybe thinking that we might look the same, but we might not speak the same language…in the end, neither group chose to say anything. And we ignored each other from then on. I guess this was mutual LFO, and I didn’t give it any thought until today, when another volunteer recommended your article to me.
Of course, I agree that we should all be polite to each other, and acknowledge a greeting when someone offers it, whether it’s a Chinese person or a laowai. But I also want to share some other thoughts specifically related to your comments.
You speak of “those situations that a Westerner just naturally feels obliged to exchange a brief greet or an act of acknowledge with a person they come within close proximity to. Situations like passing by someone on an otherwise empty and quiet street.” You say that for westerners, “stomping by in close proximity to someone without acknowledging them just feels awkward to us.” You suggest that we, unlike the Chinese, “feel culturally compelled to acknowledge the presence of strangers”. Wade, as a woman who was raised in and has worked in urban settings, I do not share this cultural compulsion with you. Upon reflection, my compulsion in these situations (two strangers, alone in close proximity on an otherwise empty street) is to do exactly the same thing we happened to do as a group in training: eye the other person coolly, let them know you know they are there, leave it at that.
You say that “Our acculturation is something that’s set in place when we’re children and will always be with us.” I agree. We both represent Americans in China, but we also both know that our acculturation is not identical, and we cannot claim to represent all Americans on all things. For you, “People nodding and saying hello when passing is truly going out of style. I’d say that most urban/ suburban people don’t do this anymore”, but in the experience of my settings, it was never in style. It would feel strange for me to adopt behavior towards westerners in China that I do not exhibit at home. And that is where my feeling of awkwardness comes from. If you see me stiffening as you approach, it might be that I know you have an expectation of a response from me that feels unnatural. For me, “acting Chinese” IS acting like myself. So please say hello to me, but don’t be offended if I stomp on your Chinese fantasy by stiffening and hunching before I say hello back.
I look forward to continued reading of the Chronicle, and to the possibility of stiffening and saying hello someday.
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