30 March 2004 2004 nian 3 yue 30 hao

Editoral: A New Perspective on Hello

Early in the morning of the very day I arrived back in Australia, three chinese restaurants in my home town were firebombed and graffitied with swastikas. But reading the complaints of some foreigners in China, you could be forgiven for thinking that an even more abominable manifestation of racism is having "hello" shouted at you on the street (example 1, 2, 3).

Let me make it clear from the outset that I do not condone this kind of behaviour. I have experienced many such hellos, and I do not like them. Anyone of non-asian appearance living in China soon learns to distinguish by ear the difference between a friendly hello and a heckling hello, but it's difficult to get used to the unpleasant feeling of of being singled out by a stranger because of your race. However, I think we should pause to consider the bigger picture before making a final judgement. By "we" here I mean westerners in China.

The fact that we can give the label "racism" to this behaviour shows how sophisticated our concept of equality has become. It wasn't always like that. The history of racism in countries such as the United States, Australia, and South Africa is long and attitudes were slow to change. It would be naive to say that the process is complete, as I guess most of us have had encounters with people who, overtly or otherwise, revealed their prejudices against blacks, or asians, or aborigines, or other minorities. Nevertheless, great progress has been made, and for that we must thank several generations of human rights activists and several generations of public debate.

And what part did China have in this process? None at all. Before the last 10 or 20 years, there were so few foreigners in China that racism wasn't an issue. Last June, the subject of mistreating foreigners was briefly brought to public attention when newspapers ran a story about a foreigner in Nanjing who caused a stir by wearing a t-shirt listing ten commandments for chinese (such as "Thou shalt not stare at a foreigner"). Perhaps this is the first step of a process that began 200 years ago in America and is still not complete?

Even so, the percentage of foreigners in China hardly compares to the number of black slaves in America before the civil war, or the number of asian migrants to Australia. I doubt that discrimination against foreigners will become a big issue in the public eye unless the number of foreigners in China increases dramatically. If and when that happens, some of the complaints that foreigners have will disappear anyway. For example, if caucasians become a common sight on the streets, then they will no longer attract stares and hellos.

Frankly, white foreigners are so uncommon that they do stand out, and even I have to fight the temptation to stare when I see one on the street. I'm curious about where they're from. I'm curious about why they're in China. I'm curious about how they will behave. I'm curious about what they will do if somebody shouts "hello" at them!

Some visitors to China have claimed that staring is accepted in chinese culture, not just at foreigners but in any situation. Although it's true that stares seem more common than in Australia, this kind of blanket statement is misleading. Of course opinions vary, but a lot of chinese feel that staring at people is quite rude and unwelcome. And as an experienced recipient of stares, I can report that most people only stare at me when they think I'm not looking. In any case, it's only a small minority which actually stare at me. There's usually a lot of people on the streets in China, and the number of stares is large because it's proportional to that. But certainly not everybody is looking—it only feels that way sometimes.

This article is not just about stares and hellos though, as there are many other ways that foreigners are treated differently. For example, sometimes they are overcharged (until I recently figured it out, every time I went to the local food market all the sellers would charge me a fair price except for the egg seller, who routinely charged me double). In some cities, they can only rent apartments in designated areas. And some chinese have strong feelings about inter-racial marriage. Another frustrating thing is discovering how many misconceptions people hold about foreign countries and foreign cultures, including everything from cuisine to social problems, but the corresponding western misconceptions about China are probably no fewer.

I would have to say that I haven't experienced much mistreatment as such, but I often find that foreigners are dealt with as a special case. For example, other teachers at my college have their wages paid into a bank account, but I am paid in cash. Students and teachers were all issued with a campus card, but foreign teachers were forgotten. And foreign teachers are never expected to attend any staff meetings.

On the other hand, sometimes foreigners receive better treatment than the average Wang. For example, little things like a worker in the school cafeteria bringing my food to me instead of simply yelling out, or a passenger on a bus offering me a seat, or a clerk just displaying more patience with me and my bad chinese than they did with the previous customer. Personally, I would prefer not to be noticed at all and to be treated just like everybody else. But I can hardly complain of discrimination in these cases.

Cross-cultural Joke

I heard a riddle that goes like this: what do foreigners have that is longer than chinese?

The answer: their name (chinese names have two or three syllables, but a full name in western countries is usually longer—especially after transliteration into chinese characters).

So it makes me laugh when a foreigner, especially a white male who has never been on the sharp end of discrimination in his whole life, comes to China and gets indignant about racism. The discomfort that he feels does not compare to the unveiled discrimination experienced by early chinese migrants in America, or the total disenfranchisement of indigenous Australians, who were not given the right to vote or even be included in the national census until the 1960s. On top of this, the foreigner is usually only a visitor and not a permanent immigrant, so there is the added hypocrisy of criticising China when racial problems in his own country are not yet fully solved.

Let me repeat once more that I am not defending prejudices and differential treatment of foreigners in China, I am just trying to offer a different way of looking at the situation which takes into account the historial and social realities.

I do not believe that racist tendencies are innate to human beings, instead I think that this predisposition is a cultural trait which unfortunately occurs in the vast majority of the world's societies. To grow up in a multicultural environment seems to be one of the most effective remedies, and that is one of the blessings that recent generations in countries such as America, Canada, and Australia have received. Chinese do not have this advantage, in fact many have never even spoken to a foreigner. Greater contact would naturally lead to greater understanding. I saw this when I stayed a night with the Li family in the small village of Zhuanjiaolou. While I was sitting around waiting for the bus the following morning, even Mr Li got a bit tired of people coming into the shop and asking "Is that a foreigner?" (I think some of them really weren't certain!). I heard him say to somebody, "What's the big deal? Foreigners are no different to chinese."

4 April

In this article I have focused on the common ways that individuals and institutions treat foreigners. I don't deny that more extreme reactions occur, such as insults or even physical threats and violence (examples 1, 2, 3), but these are not common. And just for the record, I hope it's clear to readers that hate crimes like the one I mentioned at the start of this article are not common in Australia either.

Well written editorial, Todd! I fully agree on your statement!
Dezza [homepage]
04.04.2004 , 08:35

that would be 'fully agree with your statements' sorry for my poor chinese english haha
04.04.2004 , 08:36

Great insightful and thoughtful article in light of my own troubles. I appreciate your thoughts and your rhetoric. I do, however, tend to think that incidents of cultural conflicts/ racial conflicts between foreigners and Chinese does depend on where one is in China and exactly how developed that area is. It is quite a demand sometimes for both parties to come to terms on this issue. Yes, your thought provoking article gave me time to reflect on this in my own life. Thank you!
Hankuh [homepage]
05.04.2004 , 12:59

Hank, I'm glad to get a positive response from you, since I did think about some of the difficulties that you've encountered. I must admit that my experience of China is fairly limited. From reports, it certainly seems that some areas of China are more "redneck" than others. In any case, my intent in this article is not to precisely quantify these racial issues, but just to suggest a new way of looking at them.
05.04.2004 , 19:58

*shouts Hello in a positive, friendly manner*

*snickers at the white male complaining*

While of course the argument of "it could be worse" is no excuse (for instance, John Howard when the UN reported negatively our treatment of refugees a few years back, decided that the fact that China had worse human rights abuse excused our's entirely), I think that perspective is important. I also think that foreigners only allowed to live in certain areas is...gah. bad.

You're talking mainly about how westerners are treated, but what about asians who aren't Chinese? Are there more of them? And what about Asian's who are ethnically Chinese but are from Indonesia or something?

My favourite part of this was "average Wang".
mei mei
07.04.2004 , 20:12

The question of how non-chinese asians are treated is an interesting one, to which I don't know the answer. Another interesting question is how the other 55 non-Han ethnic groups (making up about 5% of the population) are treated if they live in predominantly Han areas. I don't know the answer to that either.
07.04.2004 , 21:51

hey todd -- great article...insightful, thoughtful and well-written!
27.04.2004 , 08:38

Todd, Well done. This is the best article I've read on this topic. I've been devouring BLOG sites over last few days because thinking over going to china for 12 months and this topic dominates BLOG sites. I well remember as a kid in Sydney in the '60's parents of my friends openly abusing italian and greek immigrants in the streets "bloody wogs". Or the current terrible prejudice that many (or most?) australians have against aboriginals still today. You have put Laowai into perspective.
30.04.2004 , 13:29

Thanks for the article. Foreigners are fed up with the rude stares and the uncultured racism in China. Imagine hearing "Hello!" and "laowai" 10 times a day. It's very annoying, but I just try to ignore them. How would a Chinese feel if they went to a foreign country and heard a "Ni hao!" or "Chinaman" followed by snickers every five minutes? Many guys here act like gay teenagers.
31.07.2004 , 02:43

Average Wang - genius!
Great article. I've lived in Qinhuangdao for a year and since coming to Dalian have noticed considerably less unwanted attention or 'racism'. Still, it is very frustrating when it happens, but you've really put it into perspective and I think now the shouts will annoy me less. I had a friend who would respond to "waiguoren!" with "ribenren?" Probably not the most diplomatic approach!
Dan [homepage]
16.09.2004 , 20:33

I originally thought that chinese in western countries would never hear "ni hao" shouted at them, if only because nobody knew how to say hello in chinese. But since writing this article, I've hear a few reports on the internet of chinese overseas hearing taunts of "ni hao" or "konichiwa". Very unfortunate, but it does back up one of the points I was trying to make: let the society without sin cast the first stone...
21.01.2005 , 19:48

Actually, "chink" or "jap" are heard much more frequently than "ni hao" or "konichiwa". The latter two expressions are much too linguistically challenging for rednecks.
18.02.2005 , 04:40

I have another point, along with how the Han treat minorities. I've noticed, after 9 months of teaching adult students throughout China, that students from every province are all incredibly proud of how "unified" all the minorities are, and how there is "One China." (Part of the national rhetoric on television and stuff.) Also, even here in Shandong, Wei (sp?) minorities are respected and special utensils are provided for them since they can't eat with anything that might have touched pork.

However, the one internal racism I have noticed is more of a class distinction-- between country people and city people. I live in a small city (Tai'an) that has about a 50/50 mix of the upper educated class and poor country folk. When we took a fieldtrip out to the country, my students all began teasing one another about "marrying farmers" and how they lived, etc. It was really quite shocking for me, an American, to hear such class-consciousness from them! I felt like I was back in 18th century Britain or something. And in general, this seems to be true-- there is a huge separation between them that is incredibly difficult to bridge. They even have a hard time understanding one another because of the linguistic differences. Think of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady!
22.04.2005 , 22:24

Dear Friends:

Expecting Chinese people, who, essentially, have no human rights and who have been educated to see people of other races as sub-human, to give the foreigners who are temporarily living in China, their expected, standard, liberal, politically correct human rights is a rather far-fetched request. Keep on dreaming!
Rob Viereck
31.05.2005 , 08:54

This is a great article. I'm the guy who Todd quotes (example #3 from the first paragraph). Nice to hear my own reactions are not unique but others have felt that weirdness of being something in between a rock star and a circus freak.
Al Stone [homepage]
29.06.2005 , 14:05

I'm actually in the process of writing a post regarding racism for my blog, when I came across this.

I agree with you... to a point.

Yes, to look at things historically, does put some things into perspective, however, it does not take away from the racism itself.

Just as this treatment was wrong historically, it is wrong now. I am actually more offended, now, by what many black Americans refer to as racism.

I think the major difference here is between thoughts and actions.

I've been attacked by Chinese, only to watch everyone, including the police, write it off.

I am charged 7 times more than Chinese teachers and students, for internet access.

I have to bring a 100 yuan deposit for every book I wish to check out of the library.

These are the things I find fault with. I do not mind the staring or the "hello's", I can stare right back, and I can give a nice retort like "Konichiwa Er Ban Ren" (Hello Japanese person) which pisses them off to no end.

It is the "In your face" racism that permeates every moment of our lives here in China, that causes the hair on the back of our knecks to stand on end.

And, yes Al, I too know that feeling, but it is a sad statement that you are either treated like a god, or like shit, and no in-between.

I just get a little irritated when people here say that China is not racist. That's like me saying "I'm not a racist, I love N-ggers". It is just wrong in every sense.
17.10.2005 , 06:19

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