I have been complaining about Beijing's bad air, and soon I will complain about some other aspects of China's preparations for the Olympics. So it seemed a good time to make a point that has finally occurred to me in clearer form than before. I think I now can explain why, despite the pollution and congestion and overall ceaseless hassle of big-city life in China, I always tell friends or visitors that I "like" Chinese people in general.

The reason is that, most of the time, people in China treat me as ... a person.

Not always and in every circumstance as a foreigner, though I obviously am that. I hear the Chinese words for "look, a foreigner!" and feel the general ripple of outsiderness much less often than I hear or sense the counterparts in (richer and more sophisticated) Japan. In some rural areas, my wife and I have been the first foreigners that locals had ever seen in person. They were interested but got over it.

Not as a walking bag of money to be taken advantage of, except in the markets, where any potential customer can be treated that way.

Not as a walking English-conversation school, which was the case twenty years ago.

Not as the object of dark looks or special rudeness, since everyone pushes everyone else out of the way.

Not as a threat to state security, though the plainclothesmen around Tiananmen Square are increasingly watchful of all comers.

Not as a symbol of Western oppression of the Orient, though the mood got tense during the foreign protests about the Olympic torch relay.

Instead, most of the time, as just one more person on the street or in the restaurant or on the bus. This impression is the result of thousands of encounters with (I bet) millions of people, so it can't really be faked.

Some people have said my experience would be very different if I were a dark-skinned foreigner. Probably so. But the experience I've had makes me feel basically very positive toward the Chinese population individually and en masse -- whatever complaints I have about policies, practices, controls, and so forth. This hasn't happened everywhere I've lived!

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