How to Be a Rent-a-Foreigner in China

PT Black Describes His Experience as a Western Face Hired to Impress

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P.T. Black
P.T. Black
There's something about staring at a plate of stir-fried water beetles that prompts a moment of soul-searching. As in, "what misguided life choices have I made that have led me to this personal encounter with a jumbo platter of bugs?" Luckily I know the answer -- it was my decision to take a turn as a rent-a-laowai.

Rent-a-laowai (laowai means foreigner in Chinese) refers to companies hiring foreigners to attend their events solely because of their foreign faces. The laowai, usually Western, is there as a prop, and is rarely asked to do anything beyond shaking hands, eating a banquet and smiling for photos. The job calls for zero Chinese language or experience, and presumes no professional or industry knowledge.

It's a strange business, and recent media coverage has highlighted some unsavory aspects, as laowai have been unknowingly implicated in the shady activities of their hosts.

So it is with good reason that wise foreigners steer well clear, figuring a banquet with strangers is boring at best, dangerous at worst.

But I am far from wise. Local entrepreneurs and booming businesses in third- and fourth-tier cities are the biggest renters of laowai. These ventures are also the engines driving China's growth, and are reshaping the global business landscape. They operate well under the radar of the international community, however, and are an endless source of confusion overseas.

These are the entrepreneurs who buy Ferraris with cash. These are the corporations whose campuses are reshaping small cities.

By watching how these companies dealt with me as a random laowai I tried to glean insight into their relationship with the West in general.

Some friends at China's Paypal office brought me my first chance a few weeks back. One of Paypal's local partners was inaugurating a new office in Lishui, a small but wealthy city a few hours drive from Shanghai. The company had decided against hiring glitzy celebrities for the event and was hoping that their Paypal friends could leverage their international contacts to arrange some foreigners.

A few phone calls later and I was on the road to Lishui. On my left sat one of Paypal's directors, a Shanghainese returnee with years of experience in Silicon Valley. On my right was Nick, whom I had met through a friend two nights earlier. He'd only been in China for 48 hours, but his Western face was all he needed.

So what did I observe?

First off, the practice of renting laowais does not stem from any interest in the West, either on a personal level or a cultural level. Nobody had questions for us. It was strange, especially as the host company's revenue comes primarily from customers in the U.S. and Europe.

But it makes sense when we dig into the reasons for renting laowai in the first place. The most basic reason is to add a bit of exotic color to the proceedings. There aren't many foreigners in a city like Lishui, and the company owner felt that the event would get more coverage if the photos were more interesting.

More important, arranging Westerners at a company event gives a strong signal to all that the company is active internationally. This is especially important in dealings with local government, who support companies with tax breaks and infrastructure investment. Western faces at a company event act as a visual reassurance that the government investment is strong.

Shaking hands with the mayor in the CEO's office was in fact our most important task. We were introduced as interested potential business partners from the U.S. and Canada. The mayor's face lit up as he heard that. He wasn't interested in details, however, and cited the convenient language barrier as he moved on to other tasks.

The third role of rented laowai is to demonstrate a company's commitment to quality. Foreign involvement suggests latest technology and thinking. Or at least that's what the photographer told me as she had me pose by a bank of new computers. This is useful for internal and external PR and supports the company's claim to be an industry leader.

Lucky it was all for show -- to be honest I still don't understand what the company does.

Being a rent-a-laowai has its perks, but is hardly a reliable career choice. Payment varies, and usually appears as a red envelope filled with cash. A typical fee might be RMB1000 ($160), though it ranges significantly. For my trip to Lishui I was not paid at all, but instead handed a massive golden gift box full of vacuum-sealed tea packets. They tell me the tea is rare, and that the total value of the gift is well over $200. I wonder if my landlord will accept payment in tea?

The final role of the rented laowai is to provide an external focus for the boss to showcase his generosity. What's more, the presumed ignorance of laowai provides a convenient cover under which social rules can be bent. Bragging about the cost or rarity of banquet delicacies would be unpleasantly boastful in a purely Chinese setting. But it's perfectly acceptable under the guise of educating a foreigner.

Which brings us back to the water beetles, which are apparently a specialty of Lishui. The nice thing about being hired as a laowai is the right to act like a laowai. I call it laowai privilege -- the freedom to just say no to bugs.

Long-time Shanghai resident PT Black has channeled his natural nosiness into a career as one of Asia's leading consumer researchers, working with many of the region's leading brands. Previously, PT was a partner at Jigsaw International, where he helped prove research can be high-quality, creative, and fun.
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