Cultural Divide and Conquer: How Expats Are Exploiting Their Foreignness to Promote Big Brands to Chinese Consumers
Oh, foreigners – you people. As a proud Chinese, a great way to consolidate my identity is to contrast the greatness of my culture against those who are most unlike myself. That's why it was with great amusement that I happened upon a delightful piece of news while surfing the World Wide Web.
Laugh out loud, I did, when I read a report by China News that a group of "foreign friends" were invited to a contest here in Beijing. The contest: to eat Chinese foods so exotic and arcane that you can't find them in normal Chinese restaurants or supermarkets.
Called the "Taste Conference to Challenge Foreigners on Weird Foods That They Can't Possibly Endure," the event certainly lived up to its name.
These foreigners were "shocked" at what they saw: fried scorpions, centipedes, spiders, grasshoppers, yellow mealworms, stinky tofu ... Whatever the background and culture of this diverse group of unnamed people, I can say without hesitation that they've never experienced anything like this before coming to China, thereby affirming their foreignness.
And, the news supports this undeniable fact.
According to the article, these people had a "breakdown" once they removed their blindfolds and saw what kind of food was before them. That title got it right by saying these non-Chinese "Can't Possibly Endure" these foods, and so all of this has led to just one appropriate response: "Ha."
As far as cultural affirmations go, that certainly was fulfilling. "This is Chinese food," I might have said with complete accuracy. Extrapolating a little further, "Haha," might be what I would say at their discomfort at crossing the culture gap between us.
With the laugh long escaped from my lips, I was about to continue wasting time online when ... wait, what's this?
It turns out that these foreigners are not disgusted at eating these weird foods. A woman (wearing a kimono so as to politely inform me of her foreignness) was first heard in a video describing sheep eyes as "horrifying" and is seen reacting in fear to the food (shown above), but then later seen putting a fried scorpion to her mouth despite her earlier protestations.
This does seem odd, but with Chinese culture as great as it is, it's obvious her initial disgust was overcome by her eventual compliant acceptance ... wait, what's this?
The same person that was seen first seen eating in agony (at the top of the page) is now holding a microphone? Because he's the host of the event? Because the same foreigners "invited" to the "Can't Possibly Endure" eating contest are the same people that organized it?
My initial feeling of satisfaction is now waning. After all, the blindfold challenge isn't as effective when you already know what to expect. Are they trying to put on a show ... by putting on a show? It all serves no purpose unless ... wait, what's this?
The host is a famous Internet celebrity? With his own well-received Weibo channel, the Foreigner Research Institute? And these foreigners are not some random selection of people, but a network of international exchange students from Tsinghua University so popular that they attract thousands of viewers to a livestream?
It turns out that the "Can't Possibly Endure" eating contest host Kaz Gal-Or is friends with all these people, and attracting Internet attention is something they know how to do.
Prior to the strange food showdown, Gal-Or and friends appeared in this Foreigner Research Institute video in which these familiar faces gave their expert opinion – as foreigners – about their idols:
Well, hey, I can be reasonable; when it comes to research on foreigners, I'm all for it. Foreigner Research Institute does informative man-on-the-street interviews that provide me with a daily dosage of tabloid information to satisfy my insatiable curiosity about the world beyond my borders. And, with the positive gains with the international community made by the "Can't Possibly Endure" eating contest, there's no downside. These people can't have any alternative motive to ... wait, what's this?
That Foreigner Research Institute video, that one about idols ... it turns out to be an endorsement for Jeep?
And Gal-Or makes a special appearance with the product he's endorsing?
And the background and the microphones held by the hosts at the "Can't Possibly Endure" eating contest reveal it to be an event to promote a digital map content provider called "amap"?
To succinctly recap without any superfluous question marks: Gal-Or and his Tsinghua University friends have repeatedly made collaborations in which their status as foreigners helped promote a brand to a Chinese audience because my cultural sense of identity demands it?
That seems like a lot of effort, way too much to really be practical. After all, it's not like as though there's a particular fail-safe trick that works every time on a Chinese audience, is there?
Just like before, Gal-Or is seen visibly showing disgust at eating the weird Chinese food that is a mooncake make out of durian (a subject so good, other expats have done the same thing with the same results).
He did this, and yet remains surprised at the results of the "Can't Possibly Endure" eating contest? This guy who has been doing this same thing, all this time, is shocked to the bone?
It appears that these people are making a living in China by performing predictable responses expected of foreignness, which in turn is predictably well-received by the Chinese public.
Whoa, bring it back to me: I'm a simple man with simple needs. As a Chinese, I require my foreigners to be foreign ... it's your name, do you know? But if cultural differences between Chinese and foreigners are emphasized in the Chinese news just as a tactic to endorse a product, what does this mean? Are Chinese and foreigners just not that different after all?
In my soul searching, I have discovered a feeling from deep, down inside me. Something like ...
Now that I think of it, going through a charade for the benefit of a public just to promote a brand does seem vaguely familiar ... wait, what's that?
More stories from this author here.