I spend a great deal of time on here poking fun at being foreign in China. Admittedly, I find myself in so many preposterous situations, that sometimes it’s just too simple. For example: It’s a school decree that each teacher gets a birthday cake. I’m not entirely sure what the punishment is for not receiving a cake on your big day, but my principal seems more unyielding in regards to this rule than almost any other.
Every time there’s a birthday, the staff rendezvous in the conference room and has a little get together. No one really ever eats the cake, which is kind of weird, considering the intense gravity with which its presence weighs upon our school. The principal, when offered a piece, always responds that he doesn’t particularly enjoy cake. There are always appetizers: small plates of peanuts, oil beans, packaged tofu, and maybe some date candies that taste like grass. Depending on who the birthday boy or girl is, there will be a variable amount of baijiu. Anyway, before the cake is cut and consumed or refused, a rather familiar tradition takes place. Candles are thrust through the frosty exterior and set ablaze. Then, the honorable guest sidles up to the cake, face aglow, and with the help of a couple giddy teacher’s children, blows out the celebratory inferno.
During the ritual, as has become Chinese tradition, the crowd sings “祝你生日快乐” (“Zhu ni shengri kuaile”) also know as “Happy Birthday to You,” first in Chinese, then in English. For many people in the room, it’s some of the only English they know. During the second verse, everyone always looks awkwardly at me; like my presence has upped the stakes on verse two of the happy birthday song. It’s a tradition that would be carried out regardless of my improbable insertion into the room, but it’s a different now that I’m there. This, in a very broad nutshell, is my foreign experience in China.
The fact of the matter is, the Chinese don’t really know what to do about this foreigner thing yet. Regions within the country are so homogenous that initial awe, followed by curiosity are the overwhelming reactions. Even in larger cities that are home to a diverse array of Chinese ethnic groups, any visible minority is often met with a camera flash. Book(s) could be devoted to this topic
Throughout my young life, I’ve been a “majority.” I’m a white, straight, male American. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t get any easier than that. If you’re pulling the race card, that’s your ace of spades. It’s near impossible to be a self-aware member of the majority. In fact, there’s really not even a word for it. “Majority” doesn’t feel right. What am I? A “privileged” class as opposed to a “protected” one. “Lucky” is probably the better word. When we study American society and history, we categorize heavily. We study the suffragist movement, the black panthers, Caesar Chavez, the Chinese exclusion act. The last time white males had a movement that didn’t involve shaved heads and swastikas, I really could not say. By studying our history in such a segmented manner, our differences are pushed at as. But, acknowledgement of race, as a stand-alone attribute is so fundamentally flawed. Obviously, people have been talking about this for decades and probably centuries, but it’s not something I really saw until it found me.
An example in the same vein of the “Happy birthday” anecdote: You’re a student of any race in middle school. You’ve just scored the highest grade on an exam of great importance. Mr. Johnson calls you out to the class, lauds your achievement, encourages others to work as hard as you. The teacher is talking about you. Everyone looks at you, maybe in admiration, maybe in jealousy or maybe with a hint of spite.
Now, you’re an African-American kid in a class with 20 white students. Let’s say you’re the son or daughter of African immigrants. You’re a first generation American. It’s 7th grade social studies and the unit is slavery. Literally speaking, you have absolutely no connection whatsoever to this regrettable era in American history. As the teacher talks about the underground railroad and maybe points to textbook pictures of abuses, the other 20 students in the class glance at you on the sly, wondering how this makes you feel, thinking to themselves, “man, this is awkward.” Is it possible, maybe, that the teacher feels the need to give this lecture on tiptoes because there happens to be someone who looks like the people in the pictures in the class? Everyone’s thinking that. I was in those classes, I did it too.
Unlike in the first example, you’re getting this attention from your classmates, not for what you did or didn’t do, but from something that is connected to the color of your skin. Like slavery had/has a direct effect on you. Admittedly, the link between the two is shoddy at best, but the point is that race is all too often an overly emphasized characteristic. When we talk about the Mayflower, do the white kids get extra attention? I don’t recall it. What it teaches kids, and it’s probably true in our country, is that your race defines you as much if not more then anything else. In America, the majority (generally speaking, Caucasians) are judged on the way they choose to act, look, or dress. Their choices are not preceded by color adjectives. It’s an oppressive self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the West, we often hear about the dawn of a “post-racial” society. Of course, we are far from that. However, in many parts of China, including where I live in Dali, what exists is a “pre-racial” society. While my school and region are almost 100% Bai minority and most of the surrounding areas are mainly Han Chinese, visibly, the difference is difficult to discern. I am not seeking to minimize the distinction between the two ethnic groups, but in comparison and background, foreigners are exceedingly rare. The demographic status quo has existed here for centuries.
The way the overwhelming majority deals with race here is certainly similar, but tweaked slightly enough that it can be difficult to read into the parallels. The main difference is that American racism is/was institutional. It actually has played a part in our legal system. It’s generally nastier and more deep-rooted. Read: it has very real, impactful implications. In China, racism, while often very insensitive is more borne out of curiosity and ignorance. Being white (I won’t speak for other ethnic groups) won’t necessarily hurt you on a job application. In fact it will, more often than not, be in your favor.
For example: People will often come up to me on the street and start speaking English, supposing that because I’m white, they can speak English with me. If I go to McDonald’s and order in decent Chinese, I will almost invariably be responded to in poor English. I get pictures taken of me, not because I’m famous, but simply because I am white. I always get the high price when I take a taxi. I allegedly “prefer” certain flavors of bubble tea, because, presumably, other white people have liked them in the past.
I feel the need to note that this is obviously not all-inclusive. Like anyone, anywhere, the more exposure one has the more likely they are to (at least) understand if not accept. However, what I described is matter of fact in pre-racial society.
So what’s the difference? As I see it, it’s deep. Modern day American prejudice is a function of history. It’s an amalgamation of images and memories and preconceptions. When you talked about slavery and glanced at the black student in the class, it wasn’t wholly about curiosity, it was about guilt. Deep-seeded guilt. It wasn’t necessarily about the fact that other people that looked like you subjugated other people that looked like him or her for centuries. It’s guilt because society still does and that’s when you first begin to realize it. You feel guilty that you have preconceptions, you feel guilty about what you say to your friends behind closed doors, and then, in a strange reversal of roles, you see yourself as the policeman holding the fire hose in Montgomery or the slimy slave master in antebellum South. Even though, of course, your family probably didn’t live below the Mason-Dixon Line and most likely came to this country long after slavery. Blood is on the inside, but skin is on the outside.
In China, this phenomenon doesn’t exist. There’s no guilt, because there’s nothing to be guilty for. There are a whole host of preconceptions. When those preconceptions manifest, in the form of seemingly ignorant questions or seemingly endless photo ops, foreigners get pissed off. I get pissed off. I always think to myself, what if I went up to an Asian guy on the street in New York City and starting asking for directions Chinese? I couldn’t do that. That would evoke preconceptions, and above all else, it would be downright rude! What if, while working at a coffee shop, I recommended Juan Valdez to all patrons that spoke Spanish? It would just be… racist.
Now, in part we don’t do these things because they are wrong. As America becomes even more diverse, stereotypes begin to dissipate. However, in large part we don’t do these things because of something called political correctness, aka “negative feelings you shouldn’t express to someone’s face.” The majority has developed acceptable and unacceptable ways to approach race. Those that are acceptable are “politically correct.” Those that are unacceptable might just be racist. Keep those to yourself.
China, for one, is an incredible politically incorrect society. If you’ve gained a little weight, someone might tell you: “You’re fat and hard to look at,” to your face. If you’re just plain ugly, someone will probably tell you. Combine this built-in disposition with a still relatively untouched landscape of visible diversity and you get the incredibly direct attitude in regards to racial curiosity.
The funny thing about, “pre-racial” is that it’s a whole lot like “post-racial.” It’s kind of like when you’re painting in kindergarten. You start with a white canvas, you color a bunch, and then by the end you’ve added so many colors that the paint has basically coalesced to an off-brown color. It’s homogeneity redux. Think about it like this: Every child, maybe around four or five, asks that question: “Why does such and such look different than me?” Most people have two functioning eyes, and when they see an obvious disparity, it’s only natural to ask. Depending on the adult they ask, the answer they receive may begin to determine their feelings on race, if they maintain any at all. But, the fact of the matter is, everyone is going to ask this question at some point in their life, because political correctness (and racism for that matter) are not things that are built in to us. In China, this question is often delayed many years. So, what appears to be racist or deliberately ignorant (if I can say that) is really just a complete lack of contact. There is simply no precedent outside of books and movies. In the United States, however, I often wonder what our excuse is.