Expatriates in Beijing are a curious lot.
They come from all over the world and are either searching to fulfill their craving for things Chinese or China, looking for a way to fast-track their careers, or to go someplace exotic to brag about back home.
And their jobs run the gamut, from working in embassies or multinational corporations, to local companies, starting their own businesses or juggling several part-time jobs. One Austrian guy I met had just finished working in Shunyi on a Saturday where he's the skating coach for figure skating and hockey, and had been on the ice for 10 hours. He does that a few days a week, and then for the rest of the week does quality control for an import/export firm.
Another is quite fluent in Chinese, talking in rapid-fire Mandarin and is now setting up his own Chinese-language school for expats who want mostly private lessons, while an American woman has set up her own bakery to make delicious cupcakes and is hand delivering them all by herself.
Also along the entrepreneurial spirit is a Hong Kong man who offers nude yoga for men... who are mostly gay.
Many expats I meet have basic Chinese language skills, or hardly any and have constantly used local friends as a crutch to help communicate the most basic requests. These foreigners also tend to hang around western-dominated areas so that they can speak English with ease. It's shocking to discover they have lived here many more years than I and still haven't made much of an effort to learn the language.
Then there are those (mostly guys) who are practically fluent, have local girlfriends and eat practically everything the locals do, riding buses, rather than taxis, thus cutting their expenses to a fraction.
There's also a lot of extra money to be made as "the foreigner". A recent article talked about how non-Chinese are recruited to be present at business meetings even though the entire proceedings are conducted in Chinese. Some companies are able to clinch contracts based on the fact that a foreigner was in the room. What does the foreigner get? A cool 2,000 to 3,000RMB ($293-$440) for a few hours of wearing business attire and not saying anything.
The same goes for exhibitions, where cities, especially ones that are not Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, try to make their events look international by getting non-Chinese to show up and look around the stalls for a few thousand renminbi. Transportation included.
It's curious having foreigners trotted out when necessary as if they are performing monkeys. But that's the current state of things.
Hopefully eventually companies will know that it's not the foreign face that makes a difference, but the quality of the goods and services rendered.
Nevertheless, there's always something here for foreigners to do which is why they keep coming.