Whenever Chinese see a foreigner walking down the street, they say "Lao Wai" which means "Old foreigner". They use this saying even for a young person, so I may be missing a nuance to the term. I was thinking that it could be the same kind of meaning as "lao zai wai", which has the meaning of being "always outside". Although I don't really like that they say this, I don't really think of it as prejudice. I think that people here just aren't as used to seeing foreigners as people in bigger cities are.
This city is a huge college town, and does have a lot of foreign students. But most of the students are from African nations, so most foreigners here are black. There are also quite a few from middle eastern nations. China gives a lot of scholarships to these nations in an attempt to foster good relations with that country. But there aren't too many Americans/Canadians that come here.
I was thinking about how different things are in America. The United States is basically a big melting pot. Almost every nation in the world is represented by some of their citizens living in America. The only natives of America are the native American Indians, but their numbers are relatively small now. So to say that there is one race that is American, would be totally untrue. We are a country made up of many different races. The only way we can tell if someone is a "foreigner" is if they tell us. Granted, the states in the middle of the U.S. tend to have less immigrants than the coasts. The closer you are to the ocean, the more different races of people you will see. Additionally, the closer you are to the coast, the more ethnic foods are available. So people in central United States might look at someone of a different ethnic origin as a "foreigner", but the rest of us don't.
I really don't think most chinese people mean bad intentions when they refer to me as "lao wai". I think they are just surprised to see me. But the fact that I understand chinese does let me in on their conversations. If they think I'm fat, or if they think my nose is too large, and they say it to each other, I hear them. If I don't practice the same cultural habits as them, and they comment, I hear them. Those who do not speak chinese can enjoy ignorant bliss.
But overall, I do feel that as a people, the chinese are good hearted. They are helpful when I ask for help. I feel totally safe among them. I feel more safe walking down the street in Wuhan, China, than I do walking down the street in my home town in America. I feel totally safe riding the bus. I feel totally safe walking at night. The people here are friendly, and have a high degree of honesty. They are good at heart.
Some foreigners I know get very offended when chinese people stare at them. But in this culture, staring isn't impolite. They are just curious. I tell my friends to think of it as their "15 seconds of fame". There is no getting around it; if you aren't chinese, you will always be "lao wai". We can just be grateful that although curious, they are kind.