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.  


4 thoughts on “Differences

  1. The history of slavery affects you if you’re black even if you’re a first generation African American in a 7th grade class. Amadou Diallo was from Guinea and was shot and killed in America because of a racist system of values that has lingered for hundreds of years. Anti-blackness on a global scale is a legacy of the slave trade and European racism. The fact that the kids in the class automatically turn their heads to the black kid in the room is evidence that that particular history has everything to do with them. It wouldn’t be the first time that sort of thing has happened to that child, because things like that don’t happen in a vacuum. That kid would have been dealing with that his whole life in forms both direct and institutional. In fact, the economies and social climates of African countries are still reeling from European colonialism and the repercussions of European racism, which has everything to do with slavery in the new world because it’s a part of the same history.

    In other words, no matter where you are in the world, if you are black and a member of modern society, whether it’s a rural village or a big city, your life has been affected by European racism/anti-blackness, colonialism on the African continent, and the slave trade.

    You speak in dichotomies: black/white, Asian/white… Have you even considered what it’s like for an African or South Asian immigrant in China? Are you aware of China’s imperialist economic interests in Africa, and have you thought of what the consequences of that might be? You get treated a certain way for being white in China–I would even venture to guess that sometimes Chinese people often privilege you above other Chinese people–but not every visitor or immigrant to China is white,and many non-white foreigners don’t get treated with mere “innocent” curiosity.

    I’m not Chinese and have never been to China, so I can’t say much more about racism in China. But I CAN attest as a dark-skinned person in this world that there is no place I have ever been or heard of where there was not racism against me and people like me.

    • Spot on. My post was written from a white male point of view. In regards to slavery and connectedness, my point isn’t that there is no connection. Of course there is. My point is that the connection is unfair. I’m Jewish. My family immigrated to the US in 1896. Does the Holocaust/a world history of anti-semitism affect me. Absolutely. Was I there? Were my parents or grandparents there? No, they weren’t. So, why should my religious heritage have any bearing on the way people choose to view me?

      As to your point about being a non-white minority in China. It’s something I didn’t get into here and something I probably am not qualified to talk about. However, there is no doubt that white people are treated with an elevated status here. Racism directed toward black people and other Asians is absolutely more negative than I, as a white man would see. Naturally, feelings toward groups such as the Japanese stem from a much more deep seeded precedent and may be institutional at times.

      However, even though there may be preconceptions, racism toward blacks or whites is not yet at an institutional level, because there is no precedent. Some of the violent, disgusting racism that America has in its past and still has today simply would not happen here, because the attitudes are not nearly as deeply ingrained and strong. American racial history is a direct offshoot of centuries of subjugation and oppression, perpetuated greatly by the post-civil rights segregation that still exists today. If China had been the first to “discover” the new world I’m sure we’d be talking about this in opposite fashion. But that didn’t happen and the attitudes that exist today reflect a history with minimal contact, or shall we say, minimal opportunities to oppress.

  2. Though this article is more than 2 years old, I’d just like to say thank you for writing so eloquently and insightfully about your experience and status as a white man living as an expat in China. Many such expats just like to dismiss their “white privilege” as nonexistent, or point their fingers at the local Chinese or opposing commenters and call them racist.

    • Thanks Klaus. This blog received a lot of heat, some deserved. I wrote this very early on in my experiences in China. I learned a lot of things in the two years since it was written. My white (and especially) male privilege where I lived in rural China was with me every day. To deny that this was real would have been selective blindness.

      For any foreigner in China, their race and background equals their identity. For a white guy, this is easy. You are often afforded more leeway professionally. That’s just the reality. On the flip side, the constant stick-out-edness can be a total pain in the ass. It’s novelty wore pretty quickly for me. This is something all foreigners have to deal with, but we deal with it differently depending on what we look like. I was lucky enough to live in an atypical place and build strong relationships to the point where I think that I at least transcended parts of this narrative.

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