Chinese Urban Dictionary: Xiao Touming

By Mia Li, January 19, 2017

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Xiao Touming / xiǎo tòumíng/   小透明 n. people who don't draw attention to themselves and are largely ignored in social situations.

A. Have you recovered from the flu?
B. Yes, thanks. But how did you know I had the flu?
A. You told me yourself when we spoke last week.
B. We spoke? I don't remember talking to you at all.
A. I guess that makes me a xiao touming.

We all know those people who were (apparently) in your class in high school, though you can’t remember ever meeting them. Or those people who say they were at the same event as you last night, but you could swear you never saw them. Or those colleagues who you wouldn't recognize on the street.

You ask friends who they are, and they don't know either. It’s as if they don't exist.

I know it’s hard for you Beijing social butterflies to imagine, but such unfortunate wallflowers do exist. They never get a chance to be in the spotlight or have attention paid to them. They are the poor souls who seem to have been forgotten by the world. And so, with a tender heart, we gave them a name: xiao touming.

Literally meaning ‘little transparent,’ xiao touming describes those who have been marginalized in our society, for one reason or another. Instead of calling them ‘generic,’ ‘boring’ or ‘pedestrian,’ the term ‘xiao touming’ shows compassion by recognizing their perspective. They’re not worthless – it’s just that people look right through them as if they are see-through. 

Xiao touming exist in the cyber world too. They are those contacts whose Skype status is always ‘online’ but no one ever chats with them. Or those friends-of-friends whose comments on Facebook get no likes or replies. Or those people with cartoon WeChat profile pictures who leave groups without anyone noticing.

In fact, if you take time to speak to them, most xiao toumings aren’t dull at all. They’re normally just introverted or uncomfortable with attention. But while they may be quietly brilliant, they will still struggle in a society that rewards extroversion and assertiveness.

Since Chinese culture values virtues such as modesty and being considerate, it is fairly easy for a polite introvert to become a xiao touming. They don’t like interrupting others because they want to appear courteous and respectable; they don’t draw attention to themselves because they don’t want to seem cocky. At the bottom of the slippery slope, they end up listening to others, smiling and nodding along while everyone looks past them in search of more interesting distractions. It’s a lose-lose situation.

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