Permanent Outsiders in China

American Migrants’ Otherness in the Chinese Gaze

by Yang Liu (Author)
Monographs X, 210 Pages


This book situates migrating individuals’ sense of Otherness in receiving countries front and center and systematically illustrates the configuration of Western migrants’ Other-identity during their reverse migration from the West to China, which has become a new destination of international migration due to its rise to prominence in the global labor market. Consequently, international migrants from Western countries, especially those with skills desired in China, have become this country’s main target in the global race for talent. In this context, this book attends to American migrants on the Chinese mainland, who are perceived as the prototypical waiguoren in this region, as an illuminating case, and illustrates the configuration of their Other-identity, rising from their intercultural adaptation as the privileged but marginalized Other in an asymmetric power structure. This book also attempts to reveal the condition and process of Chinese Othering of American migrants that exists but is far less openly discussed in China.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Foreign Other in China—The Case of American Migrants
  • Chapter One: Conceptualizing the Other-Identity during Intercultural Encounters
  • Chapter Two: Research Design Guided by Grounded Theory
  • Chapter Three: Exoticized Otherness Rising from Objectification, Homogenization, and Alienation
  • Chapter Four: Stereotyped Otherness Formulated by Fantasization, Underestimation, and Stigmatization
  • Chapter Five: Ostracized Otherness Emerging from Social Estrangement and Cultural Dissociation
  • Conclusion: Rethinking about Othering from the Other’s Perspective
  • Appendices
  • Index

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This book evolves from my dissertation that examined American migrants’ experience of being the Other in China. I am indebted to many people who gave their support, assistance, and encouragement to me. While every acknowledgment I can recall includes a statement similar to “This research would not have been possible without them,” I now fully understand why that statement is so prominent.

First, I wish to thank acquisitions editors Dr. Erika Hendrix and Mr. Michael Gibson, editorial assistant Ms. Ashita Shah, US production manager Ms. Jackie Pavlovic, and production editor Ms. Malini Harikumar at Peter Lang, who responded positively to the book proposal, and then helped me facilitate the manuscript through all stages of review and production. I also thank Dr. Tom Nakayama and Dr. Bernadette Calafell, series editors of Critical Intercultural Communication Studies at Peter Lang, for their recognition of and helpful comments on this book project. I must thank Dr. Todd Sandel, associate professor of Communication at the University of Macau, for his suggestions on how to strengthen the theoretical framework and arguments of this book.

Next, I must extend my sincere gratitude to my doctoral committee members at the University of Oklahoma. Thank you, Dr. Eric M. Kramer, for your continual inspiration, unending encouragement, and patient guidance that were essential for me to complete the draft manuscript of this book. As so many others in my position have said, words are inadequate to express my deep appreciation ←ix | x→for your substantial support and encouragement. It is my honor to have you as my doctoral advisor and work with you. Thank you, Dr. Elaine Hsieh, for patiently and passionately explaining research methods and clarifying methodology-related issues. Thank you, Dr. Charles Self, for sharing your knowledge of and insights into discourses of Othering and motivating me to put what I learned from books into practice. Thank you, Dr. Ioana A. Cionea, for showing me how to be a better teacher and researcher. And thank you Dr. Jiening Ruan, for your investment in our discussions about cultures that have provided me with a richer understanding of both the bigger picture and the specific nuance.

Then, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the participants who generously and patiently shared their intercultural experiences in China. It is not easy to finish interviews, often lasting for two hours or more. My participants never complained about these intellectually-demanding interviews. They were willing to share not only their own stories, but also to introduce me to other qualified participants, and to take part in follow-up interviews. I am grateful to have met these generous individuals. Without them, this research would not have been possible. I am deeply indebted to these participants who must remain anonymous throughout this book. Thanks guys! It is my hope that your voices can be further heard and your intercultural experiences will encourage more international migrants everywhere to share their stories. A better understanding of the Other is beneficial to the Self, indeed to us all.

Last, I would like to thank my immediate family, especially my husband Yibo (Andy) Wang. Andy and I decided to develop a serious romantic relationship three months before I left China to pursue my doctoral degree in Intercultural Communication in the United States. I hesitated to take the offer from the Department of Communication at the University of Oklahoma because I knew many long-distance relationships are not successful. But Andy encouraged me to follow my heart. During the first four years, we saw each other only once a semester. Although separated by substantial geographic distance, Andy was always there, morning and night, via Skype. When I returned to China for dissertation and job-hunting in 2015, Andy worked very hard to support our family and never let financial difficulties affect my progress. Without his unconditional love, I could not have become the person I wanted to be.

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The Foreign Other in China—The Case of American Migrants

Westerners have been perceived as the very different Other in China, owing to Chinese Othering practices employed by the Chinese government, intelligentsia, and popular culture to define modern Chinese identity, defend China’s unity and political legitimacy, and gain power and authority in Sino-Western relations (Brady, 2003; Conceison, 2004; Gries, 2004). As prototypical foreigners in the Chinese gaze, Americans have been placed at the center of China’s construction of the foreign Other in the post-Cold War era (Gries, 2004; Stanley, 2013). Conceison (2004) contributed a full volume to the contemporary spoken drama’s representations of Americans between 1987 and 2002 on the Chinese mainland. In this book, Conceison (2004) delineated how the construction of Americans as China’s significant Other functioned as racial and cultural stereotypes, political strategy, and artistic innovation in this country. To facilitate readers’ understanding of her research context, Conceison (2004) recalled her experience of being a foreign Other on the Chinese mainland as the prologue to her subsequent analyses of the Chinese onstage construction of Americans in this region. Such recall leaves a worthwhile question open to discuss: how do Chinese Othering practices ascribe a sense of Otherness to American migrants during their everyday intercultural experiences in China?

Since the establishment of Sino-American diplomatic relations in 1979, a growing number of Americans have come to the Chinese mainland and increasingly ←1 | 2→ranked as the largest group of Western migrants in this region1 (National Bureau of Statistics of P.R.C., 2011). Among these Americans, those initially coming as international students have become one of the fastest-growing groups, increasing from less than 50 in 1979 to 20,996 in 2018 (Ministry of Education of the P.R.C., 2019; Neuffer, 1986). The deepening of China-U.S. education exchanges dating back to the late 20th century has promoted American students’ study abroad on the Chinese mainland, making them the largest group of Western students in this region for twenty consecutive years (Belyavina, 2013; Fang & Wu, 2016; Ministry of Education of the P.R.C., 2019). The outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008 accelerated American students’ relocation to China. More and more young and college-educated Americans have poured into Chinese universities and research institutions as international students, hoping to utilize their student status to take up a long-term residence in search of career opportunities and local employment on the Chinese mainland, the land of opportunities (Leonard & Lehmann, 2019; Levine, 2012; Pieke, 2012; Stanley, 2013).

Like other international migrants, an enduring sense of Otherness is the central theme of American migrants, echoing across situations, over time, and throughout their dwelling in China (Conceison, 2004; Y. Liu & Self, 2020). Nevertheless, scholarly studies focusing on American migrants’ Other-identity remain scarce, although China has risen to a prominent destination for international migrants. Through examining eight American students’ five-month intercultural experiences in China, Tian and Lowe (2014) argued that all participants’ initial sense of Otherness was gradually blurred and fractured to generate a more integrated intercultural identity as they gained a greater sense of shared humanity through interacting with the Chinese. Similarly, Kong (2018) explored three American undergraduate students’ intercultural transformation brought by their three-week English teaching in rural China. Although these two studies reveal that American migrants can enrich their Self through experiencing their Otherness during intercultural encounters, they only examine the short-term intercultural experiences of a small number of American students and do not offer a contextualized elaboration of how cultural, political, historical, and social forces are intertwined together to shape the formulation of American migrants’ Other-identity in the Chinese context.

How and under what circumstance do American migrants’ intercultural encounters with Chinese locals elicit their sense of Otherness in China? How do they perceive Chinese Othering practices from their perspectives? What strategies do they employ to position themselves as the foreign Other in China? How does their strategic positioning impact their identity? All of these questions have not been sufficiently scrutinized in the studies presented above. Given the dearth ←2 | 3→of research, this book examines young Americans’ intercultural experiences in China as an illuminating case and provides a fine-grained analysis of their Other-identity’s configuration from the critical intercultural communication perspective. In doing so, this book is expected to enrich scholarly understanding of the burgeoning transnational migration from the West to the East and offer a revealing insight into future studies of how Western migrants are perceived and received within China’s cultural, social, political, and historical landscapes. With China’s gradual transformation into a more integrated part of the global migration network in the 21st century, how China should mold its approach to international migrants is worthy of serious academic attention. To achieve such a goal, the first step is to listen to international migrants’ voices and to learn about their intercultural experiences in China from their standpoints.

Waiguoren’s Transnational Migration to China

Americans and other international migrants with non-Chinese nationalities are officially termed waiguoren (外国人 in Mandarin, “foreigners” in translation)2 within Chinese policy and official discourses (Leonard & Lehmann, 2019; Pieke, 2012). Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, waiguoren have occupied a sensitive and ambivalent position in this country (Brady, 2003; Leonard & Lehmann, 2019). Between 1945 and 1952, most waiguoren living in China, especially those from Western countries, were forced to leave because their foreign presence symbolized China’s century of humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism (Brady, 2003; Lv & Guo, 2018; Pieke, 2012). In the early and middle 1950s, restrictions on the foreign presence were relaxed with a tiny number of waiguoren who were deemed politically trustworthy coming to study, reside and work upon the Chinese government’s invitation or permission (Brady, 2003; Pieke, 2012). However, the worsening of Sino-Soviet relations after 1956 impelled the Chinese government to reintroduce restrictions on waiguoren in the 1960s through exerting comprehensive control on their political treatment, social mobility, and social activities within China (Lv & Guo, 2018; Pieke, 2012). As Leonard and Lehmann (2019) noted, “in the ensuing revolutionary years and until the late 1970s, China remained largely closed to foreign visits, business, and residence, apart from a few ‘friends’ with political sympathies” (p. 4).

Following its reform and opening-up in 1978, China reopened its door to the outside world and expected to utilize foreign investment and technology to accelerate the nation’s modernization (Brady, 2003; Haugen, 2015; Leonard & Lehmann, 2019; Pieke, 2012). The total number of waiguoren who entered China ←3 | 4→in 1978 reached 1.02 million and this number tripled in 1985 (Pieke, 2012). In response to growing influxes of waiguoren who made their way to China, the Chinese government loosened restrictions on foreign entries and presence. In 1983, the Border Exit and Entry Management Bureau was created with its separation from the Ministry of Public Security (Pieke, 2012). Except for specific military restricted areas and border areas, most regions and cities on the Chinese mainland were open to waiguoren after 1983 (Lv & Guo, 2018). In 1985, the Law on the Control of Entry and Exit of Aliens3 was promulgated (hereafter referred to as “the 1985 Law”), followed by the abolishment of waiguoren’s exit visa system and the implementation of a more efficient port visa system (G. Liu, 2016; Lv & Guo, 2018). These measures, according to Pieke (2012), marked “a public move away from an exclusionary discourse and the recognition that the presence of foreigners was a normal aspect of social life that had to be regulated by law rather than politics” (p. 60).

However, this is not to say that Sino-foreign contacts had become any less managed in China’s reform era. In the 1970s and the 1980s, foreign residents were still subject to subtle control out of China’s concerns over national security, national image, and ideological correctness (Brady, 2003; Leonard & Lehmann, 2019; Pieke, 2012). Therefore, a number of political and institutional strategies were systematically used to distance waiguoren from ordinary Chinese people. For example, local foreign affairs offices were set up within the areas or cities that were open to waiguoren, responsible for contacting and dealing with foreign visitors and residents (Brady, 2003). A special currency of the RMB known as waihuiquan (外汇券 in Mandarin, “foreign exchange coupon” in translation) and well-furnished housing units were exclusively offered to waiguoren during their stay in China (Conceison, 2004). As part of China’s attempts to attract waiguoren, the preferential treatment, together with higher salaries and more institutional protection, constructed these foreigners as a specially treated group with massive privileges in Chinese society (Brady, 2003; Conceison, 2004; Leonard & Lehmann, 2019).

The deepening of China’s economic reforms in the 1990s led to a growing demand for foreign talents, who were expected to contribute their knowledge, skills, and expertise to this nation’s modernization (Farrer, 2014; Pieke, 2012). In this context, many fabricated barriers that distanced waiguoren from ordinary Chinese people gradually dissolved, and the number of foreigners entering China skyrocketed to 16.7 million in 1999 (Conceison, 2004; Pieke, 2012). In reaction to the rapidly growing transnational migration, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China revised the 1985 Law in 1994 (hereafter referred to as “the 1994 Rules”), providing a complex range of laws and regulations to “control the extent of foreign penetration into China” (Leonard & Lehmann, 2019, ←4 | 5→p. 6). Two years later, regulations on waiguoren’s employment took effect, which offered these foreigners exclusive job positions in foreign-invested, state-owned, and large private enterprises in China (Pieke, 2012). The demand for foreign talents was elevated to a higher level with China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Highly skilled foreign talents, especially returning Chinese scholars in the high-tech and financial sections, were favored in the early and middle 2000s (Farrer, 2014). To better attract highly skilled foreign talents, China modeled on the American green card system and promulgated the Regulations on Examination and Approval of Permanent Residence of Aliens in 2004 (hereafter referred to as “the 2004 Regulations”) (Farrer, 2014). Given the strict implementation of the 2004 Regulations, the permanent residence was mainly granted to overseas Chinese and then to executives in foreign companies as a token of their friendship with China (Farrer, 2014; Pieke, 2012).

Since the late 2000s, China has initiated programs specifically targeting non-Chinese waiguoren out of its ambition to drain highly skilled professionals from wealthy nations, especially from Western countries (Farrer, 2014; Zhu & Price, 2013). China’s aspiration for highly skilled Westerners was furthered by the outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis, which left many young Westerners with fewer employment options on their home labor markets (Farrer, 2014; Lehmann, 2014). With China overtaking Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy in 2010, more and more young Westerners have poured into China for career opportunities and work experiences (Lehmann, 2014; Pieke, 2012; Zhu & Price, 2013). These young Western migrants consist of a large number of students who believe the firsthand knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese culture can benefit their future (Pieke, 2012). Therefore, many young college graduates choose to initially enroll at Chinese universities or language schools and then utilize the long-term residence guaranteed by their student status to search for local employment.4 Noting this trend, the Chinese government has expanded its international educational exchanges since 2010, not only aiming to build world-class universities but also aspiring to socially integrate international students as long-term highly skilled international migrant workers (Farrer, 2014; Pieke, 2012).

Among Western countries, the United States has taken the lead in establishing a bilateral partnership with China regarding educational exchanges in the 21st century. By 2000, Richard Riley, the former Secretary of Education, signed an agreement with the Chinese government regarding the exchanges across academic areas (Yang, 2008). Seven years later, the former Secretary of Education, Margaret Spelling, visited China with twelve presidents of American universities and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China. This memorandum was praised by China’s former Premier Wen Jiabao, who considered the educational ←5 | 6→exchange as “an important force to promote the healthy and stable development of U.S.-China relations” (Yang, 2008, p. 45). Attracted by China’s stable economic development in the face of the global financial crisis, a growing number of young Americans came to China and surpassed Japanese students to become the second-largest group of international students on the Chinese mainland in 2008, following only South Korean students (Cao, 2009; Fang & Wu, 2016). During his visit to China in 2009, Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, made an explicit and public commitment to increasing the number of Americans studying in China. This promise became the 100, 000 Strong Initiative, introduced by the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in May 2010. By the end of 2018, the United States has remained the largest source of Western students in China for twenty years in a row, and more than 310,000 American students in total have participated in various study abroad programs, ranging from full-degree studies lasting for several years to short-term internships, non-credit work, and volunteering (Fang & Wu, 2016; Institute of International Education, 2019; Ministry of Education of the P.R.C., 2019). Eventually, China has become a land of opportunities for young Americans, who bring their economic, cultural, and social capital in exchange for easier access to good-quality education, well-paid jobs, leisure lives, adventurous experiences, and untapped business markets in this country.

Waiguoren’s Connotation in the Chinese Context

Waiguoren legally denotes individuals “who hold a foreign nationality while residing and traveling within China” (Zhu & Price, 2013, p. 7). Therefore, this term is officially applicable to ethnic Chinese and formal P.R.C. nationals with foreign nationalities (Pieke, 2012). However, the habitual use of waiguoren in Chinese society has been confined to individuals without salient Chinese physical appearance, especially the Han Chinese phenotype (Y. Liu & Self, 2020; Mao, 2015). Such a distinction between the (Han) Chinese and waiguoren can be traced back to the Sino-barbarian dichotomy, also known as Hua-Yi distinction that emerged during the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 BC) (M. Wang, 2013; Y. Wang, 2015). As a cultural exemplification of Sinocentrism, Hua-Yi distinction differentiated the civilized, developed, and superior Huaxia (华夏 in Mandarin, “China” in translation) at the center from the uncivilized, underdeveloped, and inferior cultural or ethnic outsiders termed Yi (夷 In Mandarin, “barbarian” or “foreigners” in translation) on the periphery (Callahan, 2020; Ge, 2018; Y. Wang, 2015). The construction of Huaxia converged with a persistent Han ethnocultural identity during the Han dynasty (221 BC–206 AD) to generate an interior (Han) Chinese ←6 | 7→Self, opposite a marginalized exterior foreign Other who is not (Han) Chinese (Dikötter, 1992; Ge, 2018).


X, 210
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 210 pp., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Yang Liu (Author)

Yang Liu received her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and is now working as Assistant Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She attends to international migrants’ Otherness formulated in and through intercultural communication and has published with prestigious journals on intercultural communication and international migration.


Title: Permanent Outsiders in China