Racism with Chinese Characteristics
Actual discussion in my English speaking class:
“-Today we will talk about cultural differences and whether it is easy or hard to accept other cultures into our own. For instance, almost all of you are girls and are now around 21-22 years old. So in 2-3 years you will be looking for a husband. What if you wanted to marry a foreigner? Would your parents approve?”
“-Of course, no problem. My parents are modern and very open.”
“-So they wouldn’t mind that your baby will not be pure Chinese?”
“-Of course not! As we all know, mixed-blood baby is very beautiful and has been proven scientifically to be more clever. They would very happy!”
“-So, it doesn’t matter what country he is from?”
“-So…if you wanted to marry a black man, your parents would be happy?”
“Oh my god, no! Of course not, black is so scary! And my baby would be black. That would be so terrible! My parents would never talk to me again!
Yes, this was a real and truly a typical conversation I had when teaching at a Chinese university.
I used to believe that there was a lot of racism in America, but living in China taught me that Americans are not all that racist if we think of racism as judging someone by the color of their skin. The U.S.A. Civil Rights Act includes “skin color” as a prohibited basis of discrimination, but I’ve never actually met any Americans (or any Westerners for that matter) who say or even imply that they dislike hiring or in any way associating with someone because of their skin color. Certainly, I’ve run across white people who say they don’t want to hire a black man because they hold the stereotype that he will be lazy or dangerous or unintelligent (and I don’t want to discount racially motivated violence in the U.S. especially recently in the context of police stops), but it is only in China that it is the dark skin color itself that causes such big problems for the majority of the locals. Many people here even lack a basic understanding of race, for when they refer to “black people” it may be anyone with very dark skin, resulting in many of the international Pakistani and Indian students who are studying at the local Chinese Medicine College being considered “black.” When they try to explain that they are not black because they are not from Africa etc., only confusion ensues since “obviously, your skin is very black, so you are black.” It can work in reverse as well, for if you ask someone who was Michael Jackson, the answer will invariably include “he was a black man who became a white man.”
There is a Chinese expression yi bai zhe qian chou which roughly translates as one little bit of whiteness will cover up a thousand uglinesses, and it is truly a viewpoint the Chinese hold. Walk to any makeup shop and you will find many skin smoothing masques and creams just like in any Western store, but I will challenge you to find a cream or masque in China that does not advertise “skin whitening” as a key selling point. The obsession with white skin tone is evident on any hot sunny day, for you will see more girls hiding under umbrellas than during a rainstorm, for “we must protect our skin, or we will become black.”
So if you hear a comment like “I have nothing against black people; I just wish they would wash better or take care of their skin, so they wouldn’t be so black,” don’t be surprised. They really do mean it.
Unfortunately, if you are black or otherwise dark skinned, you will find your treatment less than satisfactory in China. Having lived here for a while, I am often asked by various English training schools and advertising companies to find foreigners for part-time work as teachers, models, fake foreigner gigs (discussed in my next post) etc. I have learned that I must ask about any restrictions on the kind of foreigner they require. And the answer unfortunately is usually Any foreigner is fine, so long as he is not black. If I try to mention that he has many years teaching experience, the response will be but the children will be scared or but the parents will not be satisfied.
But don’t let this get you down. For another Chinese proverb comes to the rescue: du chang shi yi qing chang de yi – roughly translated as: if you lose in gambling, you will win in romance. Another key feature of the Chinese mindset is curiosity, for the Chinese love to try new things and to verify rumors. This is where being exotic can make life more interesting in China. While achieving a long term relationship and marriage with a local woman is a quite unlikely goal to achieve, but in the short term, you can have a lot of fun. Some of my dark skinned friends have certainly benefited from Chinese ladies curiosity, for after a few drinks at a bar or club, curiosity often wins over the cultural preconceptions. There may even be an opportunity to capitalize on the dissatisfaction of rich wives of cheating husbands.
So these are my impressions of racism with Chinese characteristics.
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