Friday, July 4, 2014

Being Chinese in China

What I remember most from my sixteen days in China last month--aside from the lack of road rules and the amazingness of the noodles and how pleasant it was to see my relatives--was feeling invisible. And enjoying it.

Not the invisible you feel when you are a lonely freshman in your first year of high school and none of your friends are nearby. Not the invisible you feel when the light you radiate literally does not reach people's eyes.

Invisible as in being in the phenotypic majority.

When you are Asian in America, even in a place like the Bay Area with a lot of Asians, you are a minority. (More specifically, the "model minority," a phrase you should never use if you are not Asian and not being ironic.) Most people around you, especially if you live in a tiny bubble community, are white. Just by expressing your genes, just by having "golden" skin and "Oriental" eyes, you are unusual and you will have people who assume that you can't speak English, who ask where you're from and don't believe you when you say "Illinois."

But you get used to it. You've lived in America your whole life and you are pretty whitewashed anyway so you fit in, more or less, even if the first thing people notice about you is your race.

Then you go back to the motherland and the weirdForeignerStatus has finally been toggled to "False."

Never mind that my Chinese is halting and accented. Never mind that I hold a navy blue passport with a golden eagle on it. I look like everyone else, and that means that I can go about my business 1) without worrying if people are noticing me, 2) uncommented upon, 3) accepted completely. Invisibly.

Humans are clannish. As E. O. Wilson argues in The Social Conquest of Earth, natural selection at the group level means that people who banded together and formed tight intergroup connections were able to outcompete individuals or more fractious groups. Cohesiveness and conformity have helped our species achieve the great works of civilization.

I will cite this as an explanation of how I started becoming racist.

I spent two weeks without seeing any non-Chinese people except in advertisements (and that's something else--if you're advertising in China, why are you still putting white people on all the buildings?). Relatives looking at my prom photos assumed that my (white, fair-haired) date was Asian, because it just seemed too weird that I would associate with foreigners. Parents' friends ask, hesitantly, "And at school, do the Chinese to the white students?" In the suburban and rural parts of China, Chinese is default. Naturally.

Then I came back to Shanghai, a fairly international city, and saw people who weren't Chinese. And the first thought that sprang to my mind was, "What are you doing here?"

I am ashamed that that was my first thought, but I will not apologize for it because it's what white people think about me when they see me at home, in America. If you are in the majority race, no matter what that happens to be, your presence is taken for granted. You don't have to justify being there. When you're a minority, though--whether a Chinese kid in America or a white in Asia--you stand out, and people wonder why you're there.

When most of the time you have to justify yourself, it is an immense relief not to have to do that anymore. And yes, there is some vindictiveness when that burden shifts to people who are, normally, normal. Who haven't had the opportunity to get used to being marked as different based solely on their race.

In Shanghai we went to a shopping center: lots of little booths, people selling knockoff handbags and World Cup paraphernalia and watches and tchotchkes. All of the vendors were Chinese. The clientele was a mix: of course such places are tourist traps.

First note: haggle the hell out of anything. A bag that was originally 350 yuan, my mom haggled down to 100.

Second note: if you're a foreigner you're not going to get the best prices. A vendor sold me a watch (a present for the sister) for 50 yuan, straight off the bat, and explained that she can make enough money ripping off the Westerners to afford to give a fair deal to her Chinese patrons. After all, she said, we are like a family.

Is this the mark of Communist nationalism? Perhaps. But it goes deeper than that: if you are the dominant race in any region, then it benefits you the most to close your borders. To begin the process of othering (see: Edward Said). If you discriminate between us and them, you know that you will be the "us." The insiders.

Being in the majority means you are invisible. You are accepted by default. The majority always has an advantage over the minority.

And it feels amazing.


  1. Wow, i have dropped off the blogosphere for months and you have written sooo much. kudos on all of your projects.
    i particulary liked this post, i never really felt in the minority since i'm a proper short, dark haired italian gal, so i never thought about how people who 'look different' feel on a daily basis. it must be tough always having people who do not know you think you are out of place.
    You must have finished high-school by now and what about college? the very best of luck to you! take care xx

    1. Thanks! Most of the time I don't really think about it since I'm just used to it; going to China just pointed it out to me because in China I did feel as though I wasn't being noticed.

      Yep, I graduated high school a couple of months ago. Heading to Stanford in the fall!