I would say a lot of them show casual indifference because most Chinese people don't live in places that have a foreigner (Western) population. They may go their entire lives only seeing Westerners on TV and so we 老外(laowai), or foreigners are thought of similar to celebrities; we have seen them on TV but we don't tend to think of them as "real people". This opinion changes when they come to a big city like Beijing though. There, Westerners are everywhere. Once you get used to living in China, it will be easy for you to tell the 外地人 (waidiren) or country folk from the city people. Newly arrived country transplants treat Westerners like animals at the zoo. They may laugh, point, stare and do crazy things to get your attention. This may sound extreme, and it is. Not everyone will go this far, but they do stare. Later, when they get used to seeing us everywhere, they view us as the city people do. Indifferent, but that's what you see on the outside. If you get to talk to them though, they have all sorts of questions: How long does it take to fly here on an airplane? How much did your ticket cost? Why are you here? Do you like China?, How did you learn Chinese?, etc...Chinese people know most expats are in China to make money. They think expats make a lot of money, and some do. But the expats who make a lot of money tend to take only taxis or have their own drivers, so they're not seen on public transportation. Taking the subway or the bus is an excellent way to get to know Chinese people and ask them lots of questions too. Its nice to demystify their perceptions so that we can become real individuals to them.
The only downside to this is that a few Chinese people view a friendship with a Westerner as an opportunity to get free English lessons or look better than their peers because they are seen with them. Eventually it gets easier to tell who is really interested in being your friend and who wants you to be the Western face of the new English school they are starting up.
Unfortunately, at first the experience of other Asians, like the Japanese or Koreans, is different. They have the advantage of being able to blend in and have some measure of anonymity, at least until they begin speaking Chinese. Most Asian expats come to China for business and tend to stay within their own communities. A lot do not have Chinese friends. This is because some Chinese people, who tend to be of the older generation, have a long memory about what happened years ago during the Sino-Japanese War and Manchurian Invasion in the 1930s. But mainly its because Chinese people feel, and I know this will sound strange, that if you are Asian, you should speak Chinese. I heard many times that Chinese civilization is older and Koreans and Japanese are really Chinese anyway. I don't claim to agree or disagree with these views, its just what I have heard and been told. Regardless, I do know for sure that my Japanese and Korean friends spoke beautiful Chinese, so well that eventually even Chinese people didn't know they were not Chinese. And with China opening up the younger generation does not carry with them the same attitudes that their parents and grandparents may have had.
A lot of Chinese perception about foreigners is shaped by the relationship the Chinese government may have with a particular country at the moment. My experience in Beijing was good, but I did meet a few grouchy people who didn't like Americans because of Obama's trade policies or whatever. This was mostly from taxi drivers who wanted to blow steam after they asked where I was from.
I believe China is what you make of it though. Everyone is capable of having a great China experience no matter where you're from. Chinese people are hospitable and welcoming, love a good laugh and good meal. If you're willing to share that with them, you'll be fine in their book.
More questions about moving to China or what it's like to be an expat?
Email Me, The Calculated Adventurist