Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Racism and the foreign experience in China

Last night1 was another night of involuntarily being made to play the foreigner. At a "cross-cultural New Year's" party, I was the only non-Chinese person. The hostess went out of her way to talk to me in English, and if I was talking to my friend Eric in English, told other people that he was 'translating' for me. A few people at the party remembered my name, but generally I was referred to 外国人 wàiguórén - foreigner, or literally, "person from an outside country".

It's incredibly psychologically damaging to be made an outsider - regardless of the intent. I have no doubt that the hostess was not intending to be at all offensive. She probably assumed I was in on the joke. Perhaps if I were of a different temperament I might have been. But the effect for me was to make me feel like I was under a constant spotlight as the outsider.

Living abroad has proved the distinction between intelligence and wisdom, in that I've come to understand many things that my intelligence could not lead me to grasp a few years before. Racism is one of them. I'm pretty sure that the white Americans who complain about reverse racism - I used to be one of them - are wrong. Because it's impossible to understand what it feels like to be in the minority when you're in the majority.

Language




I ordered this T-shirt and enjoy the reactions I get when wearing it. Front: "The foreigner has arrived." Back: "The foreigner has left."
One frustrating part of being white in China is the assumption that you can't speak Chinese, which used to really bother me when I was spending all of my free time learning the language, only to be confronted by people who refused to use it with me because they assumed I didn't know any.

My experiences with being spoken to in English range from the comical to the maddening. On that same New Year's Eve, it happened to me twice on the subway. The first time was when a tour guide saw me using a ticket machine. She rushed over and switched the ticket machine into English for me. "English!", she commented helpfully. I stared at her and switched it back.

In many cases, the intent is nothing but the best - to help someone in what is assumed to be the only language they can speak. But the effect is patronizing. If I had thought of it earlier, I would have asked the tour guide this question: do you think I came all this way to China just so I could do everything in English?

In June, at the supermarket outside my then-girlfriend's apartment, I walked up to the register to pay for my Lays (foreign chips are pretty popular here, an example of how economic integration has preceded social integration). The following exchange occurred:
Saleslady: [to another customer] 我说话他也听不懂…… No matter what I say, he won't understand anything....
Me: ...

People will often speak to me in English - even more so in Taiwan than in China, actually. I'm sure some of them are trying to be polite, but to me it's insulting. I've spent too much time learning their language to want to hear "hello!" from someone I don't know. And as far as politeness goes, I was never spoken to first in English in Japan -- people would speak in Japanese first, and then switch to English once it became clear I didn't understand.

On the other hand, there are plenty of foreigners who get annoyed when people don't speak English. And while I saw plenty of foreigners talking in Japanese and hanging out with Japanese people in Japan - even one who was outside of a store promoting its wares in Japanese - it feels much rarer to find foreigners speaking in Chinese here. So to a certain degree it's our own fault for perpetuating the saleslady's stereotype.

On the plane from China to Japan, I arrived at my seat to find it occupied. The young Chinese woman in the seat had a discussion with her seatmates and then with the stewardesses, who together resolved to ask me whether I would move up to a different aisle. As one of them came over and began to speak in English, I just said, 可以 kěyǐ -- "OK". As I got up to go to the other aisle, the people around me started applauding. Simply speaking Chinese was enough to be worthy of applause.

Celebrity


The experience of being a foreigner in China is surreal. At different times, one feels like a celebrity, a monkey, or an English machine.

The other day, I was riding on the subway when two girls started giggling and looking at me. Eventually a third passenger, a man, offered me his seat next to them, telling me that they had been talking in English but were too shy to practice with me.

People will sometimes come up to take photos with me, which can be nice or annoying depending on circumstance.

In retrospect, one of the things that's most special about my ex-girlfriend is that she never thought of me as a foreigner. We apparently spoke English when we first met - I don't remember this part - but as soon as my Chinese was good enough to communicate, we switched to Chinese, since I was pretty fanatical about learning it. Now I'm more laid-back about my learning so we talk2 in English sometimes. But she tells me that when we go out together, she gets even more stares than I do from people wanting to know who the Chinese girl together with the wàiguórén is!

Racism


It's not really fair to equate the foreign experience in China with that of, say, blacks in America. Unlike with real racist situations, for foreigners in China, the positives roughly balance out the negatives. In many ways we are the powerful, not the powerless; we have easy access to higher salaries and sometimes preferential treatment compared to the average Chinese. For example, I laugh every time I go through the security scan at the subway near my apartment. Even though the scanner detects the water bottle in my bag, the guard has NEVER done what he or she does with every single other passenger who is found to be carrying a liquid, which is to ask them to drink a sip. I'll rack this up as one of the advantages of being assumed to be ignorant of Chinese!

But when you're being patronized, ignored by salespeople or taxi driver, or talked about like a dumb animal, those positives don't come to mind, and you just feel a deep and burning sense of unfairness. If I feel this way in a society that generally welcomes me, I can't imagine what a black person would feel in America.

What I'm trying to advocate for is empathy, even though I don't know if it's possible to understand if you haven't had the experience yourself (and maybe I'm being presumptuous in thinking my experiences in China qualify me to empathize with real victims of racism). But if nothing else, we should try to understand that things that might seem little in the abstract (like not getting a taxi) become huge when they symbolize unfairness and exclusion. Take this story related to me by an Asian friend from her childhood in West Virginia:

Well it was a loooong time ago. I was in elementary school. And we used to play basketball behind my apartment. There was a McDonald's right beside the basketball court. One day one of the kids found out that they gave out free water. So everyone went to get one. When it was my turn, the person at the counter said that it wasn't free. Later a black kid came with me, and we got the free water. I was never refused water from that place again, but just never got over it.

Although it seems irrational or wishy-washy, I believe that it's not up to others to judge whether or to what degree racism is experienced, but to the person experiencing it.1 In my case, I've complained to several friends about the word featured on the T-shirt above: 老外 lǎowài, literally "old foreign[er]", which is a more colloquial way to refer to foreigners than the word wàiguórén mentioned in the first paragraph. The reaction I got from many people, some of them very intelligent, was that it wasn't meant negatively and hence I should (in essence) get over it. But I don't think the intention matters. The effect is to make
Similarly, I used to think that it was silly to rename sports teams just to be politically correct, but I can understand now that just because I can't see why calling a team the Redskins is really hurtful, doesn't mean it isn't.

As I mentioned before, I don't think I could have understood racism in America and elsewhere without experiencing a version of it here. It's one of the many things that I'm thankful to have gotten from living in China.

1 This was written last February
2 We still talk and are still sort of together... It's complicated, but I won't bother you with the details of my romantic life
3 Within reason, of course.

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