What are advantages and disadvantages of being white in China?
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PROS AND CONS:
Con: People treat you as if you’re stupid. Even if you speak to some people (usually cashiers and the like) in Chinese it is common for them to just assume that you don’t speak the language and then start speaking to you in grunts and pointing. (The last time I choose to insist that the person talk to me in Mandarin, it turned out that the guy was mute and could only speak in grunts. It was the most horrible I’ve ever felt “Oh, I’m a really bad person and will just pay whatever you want and sulk away in shame.”) People start conversations on topics surrounding Chinese culture assuming that you know absolutely nothing about the subject, and ignore you when you try to suggest that you actually have some background knowledge. This isn’t true for every interaction, but its common enough that it gets on your nerves.
Con: You are stupid. No matter how good your Mandarin gets, no matter how much you learn about pop culture, politics, history, etc. you will not get a large amount of what people are talking about at any given moment. This will get less intense over the years, but it won’t go away.
Pro: People treat you as if you’re brilliant. If you manage to get over points one and two and say a few coherent sentences in Mandarin people will praise you for being brilliant. If you have any Chinese American friends people will constantly tell you how much better you speak then they do, and how much smarter you are than them – even if they’re near fluent and you’re just a beginner (My Chinese American roommate’s Chinese is so much better than mine, but her friends and coworkers constantly tell me how much better mine is, and how much smarter I am than her). If you can say a few things on an obscure topic of Chinese culture and history you will be treated like a genius in a way that a Chinese person with the equivalent understanding never would.
Pro: You have an “I’m a dumb White person” card. Upon entering China every White person is given an “I’m a dumb White person” card. Be sure to bring it with you at all times – it’s useful for getting yourself out of any number of situations. When you’ve committed a social faux pas, when you’re getting in an argument with a cab driver and you’re pretty sure you’re at fault, when the police want to know why you haven’t registered your new address for several months, pull out your card so that they can see it. Act confused, but smile a lot so they know you mean well. If you can speak Mandarin, it’s better to pretend not to – or at least to speak really horribly.
It is important to be the right kind of dumb White person, though. When I was overstaying my student visa and living in a guesthouse that didn’t register me, I had my passport stolen. The police should have given me a heavy fine and deported me, but since I gave them my dumb white person card, they bent the rules and let me stay in China. When doing so, one of them said, “Look at that cute little dumb White kid – that deer in the headlights look he flashes every time we ask for his documents is just adorable, let’s give him a break.” At the same time, there was another dumb White guy in the visa office yelling at the police. For him, they decided “That dumb White guy is real dick, let’s fine his ass and give him 48 hours to leave China.”
Pro: There are lots of other White people in China for you to make friends with. If you’re in a big city, there are other White people around. It is not uncommon for White people that I haven’t met to smile at me and say hello as we pass on the street, presumably out of the assumption that we have some shared bond. You can get together and make friends with them, and talk about your shared experiences being White in China. Some of them are pretty interesting – I’ve had fascinating conversations with really engaging people, and learned a lot just talking to some random friend of a friend in a bar. (Of course the expat communities in Beijing and other large cities aren’t exclusively White, and aren’t exclusively non-Chinese – there are people from every continent outside of Antartica, and its easy to meet folks from countries you never knew existed (I once was at a party with a dozen people from Mauritius.)).
Con: There are lots of other White people in China for you to make friends with. Due to the transitory nature of expat communities, it tends to be a lot easier to make friends with people. That’s good when you need something to do – there’s always a party, or a group of people heading out to the bar and they’re generally happy to have you come along. You always have something to start conversations about (e.g. What are you doing in China?, China is changing so fast!, Places that would be considered large cities in our respective countries would be considered tiny backwaters in China!, Listen to my story of almost strangling my cab driver on my way over here., Listen to my long story of the convoluted bureaucratic process I had to go through in order to accomplish a seemingly simple task, etc.). But the very fact that its so welcoming can be a disadvantage when it keeps you from venturing out of the relatively comfortable expat social circles and learning more about the larger world of non-White people around you. And you wind up having the same conversations with different people a lot – conversations that weren’t that interesting the first time around.
Con: You are an object of casual curiosity. People look at you. People ask you random questions, and say “Hello!” to you while passing you on the street. People say things like, “Will you be my foreign friend?” in ways that feel condescending. This can sometimes be traumatic, such as the time I was sick as a dog in a public toilet that didn’t have dividers in the stalls and some guy started trying to talk to me about basketball, listing all the NBA teams and asking my opinion on each. This is less true in large cities than it was 10-15 years ago, and only becomes noticeable when you go to smaller, more out of the way places these days.
Pro: You are an object of casual curiosity. While part of me is glad Beijing is no longer a place where I’m constantly asked questions by people curious about foreigners, I also somewhat miss it. I used go to small, out of the way restaurants and could make friends with everyone inside. I’m interested in learning about random Chinese people’s lives, so it was a good way to learn about life for different groups within Beijing.
Pro: Some Chinese girls are attracted to White guys. Not all of them are by any means, but there are definitely a segment of Chinese women who are attracted to white men. It’s easy to get a date.
Con: Some Chinese girls are attracted to White guys. I had a very cute girl talking me up a few nights ago, referring to me as “You foreign guys,” (e.g. “You foreign guys are so tall and good looking, and I love you foreign guys’ blue eyes…”) After a while I got pissed off and had to say, “Thanks for the compliments, but I have a name, and it isn’t ‘You foreign guys'” It’s easier to get a date than it is in the US, but that very fact makes it hard to find someone that you really connect with. Who is interested in me because I’m White, because I’m exotic, because of assumptions that they make based on my citizenship, etc.? And who is interested in me because of who I am as a person? The signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. In Beijing it’s easy to get a first date, but a lot harder to find someone I want to go on a second or third date with. When I’m in the US it’s harder for me to get a first date, but more of them lead to something substantial. (Part of this is language and cultural differences as well…)
Pro: It’s easy to find work. Show up, speak English and get a teaching job paying 3 to 5 times the average salary of a recent Chinese college graduate. Get approached to be in commercials, do voice work, etc. I’ve had jobs that included just hanging around a display for a linens company in a housewares exhibition. I’ve been on TV and been an extra in movies.
Pro: It’s easy to for your friends to find you in a crowd. I’m over six feet tall and white. If we’re going to meet somewhere, you’ll see me when you get there.
Con: People think you’re a tourist. I’ve lived in a tourist neighborhood for years and still can’t walk down the street without touts hoarding me. I go to Wangfujing, a main tourist neighborhood, fairly regularly, and the girls that rip off tourists constantly come up to me – even after I’ve already told them to find another sucker a few dozen times.
Con: People try to make you pay ridiculous amounts for things. If you’re in a market that doesn’t have set prices, you need to set aside anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to bargain because they start out with insanely high prices. After asking you for 800 RMB for a pair of jeans that should be 50 RMB they go on and call you a cheap bastard for not wanting to be ripped off. Sure, rent and food prices are going up, and small shop owners are getting squeezed – but it turns something that could be a simple transaction into a yelling match. Don’t even get me started on real estate agents.
Pro: There’s a presumption that you belong in high class places. If you need to use a bathroom, it’s best to skip the public toilet and go to the nearest upscale hotel or restaurant. People don’t stop me, even when I’m wearing a beat up pair of jeans and a Metallica T Shirt.
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