Day 16: White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Have about Americans {31 Days of #WOKE}

White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Have about Americans

How to Become Famous in China

If you are white and live in China, you’ve probably heard of the Canadian known as “Da Shan” (Big Mountain). If you have never been to China, I’m guessing you have no idea who I am talking about.

When I lived in China, everyone assumed I knew about Da Shan. Da Shan first appeared on Chinese television in 1988 and quickly became a household name–in China, that is.  Known for his fluent Chinese, he hosted T.V. programs, performed comedy, acted in films and was sometimes a cultural informant between east and west.

If you were white and knew Chinese in the 80’s, you were an anomaly. It might even help you rise to fame.

Da Shan
Da Shan

But when I lived in China from 2005 to 2010, English was the currency of supremacy in northwest China. If you spoke English and were a “foreigner” you could get a job almost anywhere. And if you were an English-speaking foreigner with white skin, you were a rock star.

It was hard not to enjoy it. (You can read about God squelching my pride in regards to that here and here.)

Of course, being a communist country, there was suspicion. We could be spies. This was the main fear. But as long as we kept everything above board, we could live the “harmonious life” the billboards advertised. The organization I went with was up front about the fact that they only sent Christian English teachers. And we were told the government appreciated that Christians tended to adhere to higher moral standards than non-Christians.

Wrong or Different?

Unlike living in Uganda, when I lived in China I was also a graduate student formally studying culture. Because of this, I felt like I finally had a decoder to aid in deciphering the culture of the people around me. I knew better what to expect. I had a framework for our different perceptions of time, relationships and tasks. Instead of assuming “the Chinese” were doing it all wrong, I assumed they were doing it all different. I still got frustrated with last minute cancellation of class due to school-wide tree planting, but I eventually chocked inconveniences up to “cultural differences.” Sometimes I figured out ways to beat the system.

For example, when I was a language student during my fourth and fifth years in China, I invited my classmates who were from all different countries to my apartment on Friday nights to play games and practice our Chinese. After the first few weeks I altered the time I told each classmate depending on which country they were from. The goal was to begin at 6 pm, so I would tell the Chinese students to come at 6, the Americans to come at 5:45, the Pakistanis to come at 5 pm, and the Nigerians to come at 4:30. In the end, everyone arrived precisely at 6 pm.

White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Had about Americans
Chinese Corner: My classmates from Japan, Kyrgystan and Pakistan

Stereotypes Chinese Had about Americans

My Chinese friends had many stereotypes about Americans that were sometimes offensive, but eventually just comical. I asked some Facebook friends to weigh-in on this question to jog my memory.

Apparently, white Americans all:

1.      Use facial whitener.

2.      Are “open.” (tolerant, free-thinking, independent—this wasn’t necessarily a good thing)

3.      Carry guns.

4.      Are rich.

5.      Have a lot of kids (so more than the one).

6.      Live in a 3+ bedroom home with a well-manicured yard and dog.

7.      Aren’t very studious because our schools are easier.

8.      Like the T.V. show “Friends” and act like those characters do (A.K.A. sleep around).

9.      Look like movie stars.

10.   And yet we’re all fat.

11.   Maybe because we all eat:

McDonald’s, KFC, cheese, drink milk, eat a lot of meat and have desserts all the time?

12.   And as a result, our homes smell like spoiled milk.

And from my friends of other races:

13.   “Black Americans are not American, but African.”

14.   “Chinese-Americans aren’t real Americans.”

I’ll refrain from posting the lengthy list Americans have developed of stereotypes about Chinese (for now, at least).

White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Have about Americans

Changing Cultures, Changing Perceptions

The longer you live overseas as an expat, the more your “whiteness” morphs into a new culture. Sometimes, you even start to dislike your home culture, forming your own stereotypes. “Americans are so materialistic, consumerist, self-centered, individualistic and ethnocentric.” You tiptoe across the “third culture” line where you belong everywhere and nowhere.   

When you are a white person traveling to a non-white country, you usually climb the social ladder. But if you are a person from a non-white country migrating to America or another majority-white country, you can usually expect to slide down several notches in social status.

Everyone has heard stories of non-English-speaking physicians, lawyers or professors with phDs moving to the United States and only being able to get a job at MacDonald’s. Some are able to learn English and resume their work in the U.S., but even these immigrants experience discrimination. (i.e. here’s a quiz for you: If you had to choose a new doctor just by looking at the last name, how would you choose?)

Megan Lietz in her article titled Whiteness and White Identity, offered three dimensions of whiteness. They included the “power to define social norms,” assuming because the majority does things a certain way that this is the best way to do them. The second is that whites in the U.S. have a structural advantage over non-whites in terms of politics and economy because of sheer numbers. And the third, called “white transparency,” means that whites often don’t even need to think about race. 

“White transparency” in the U.S.—being ignorant of our race–becomes “white opaqueness” in China and many other non-European countries. You can’t escape the fact that you are being put on a pedestal for no other reason other than you are white. While it may be possible to ignore race as a white person living in the United States, if you travel to a country where the people are not of European origin, it gets much harder to ignore.

 

If you have traveled to a non-western country, what was your experience of “whiteness”? Were you treated differently because you were white?

If you are not white, what was your experience living abroad?

Check back tomorrow–a friend of mine will be sharing her story as a person of color in the U.S.!

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 15: White in Uganda {31 Days of #WOKE}

White in Uganda: What I learned about "whiteness" through living six months in Uganda.
by Leslie Verner

Uganda hoisted a mirror in front of my face, reflecting my whiteness back to me. In the six months I was there, from July to December of 2000, I began seeing and knowing myself–and all the hidden baggage my race represented.

I rode three different taxis home from work in the congested city of Kampala, Uganda, to our village on the outskirts of the city. At first, my host mother accompanied me, but I eventually mustered the courage to do it alone. Clambering out of the taxi van, I walked the final fourth of a mile home down the dusty orange road guarded by banana trees with huge waxy leaves. The children were already waiting for me.

Muzungu, muzungu! Give me money!” They stroked my arms, remarking on my “feathers,” and each one grabbed a finger to escort me the final way home.

Our home was the nicest in the village. Though it didn’t have running water, we had electricity, four solid brick walls around the yard and a large metal gate to protect us from “robbers.” My host mom indicated that they were putting themselves in greater danger because thieves would assume they were housing a rich foreigner.

Though Kampala had many expats, I wasn’t interested in meeting them. I was one of 21 interns dispersed around the globe in a variety of developing countries with the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program at Wheaton College. The purpose wasn’t to be helpful, travel or even make a huge impact (though we hoped that would happen, too), but simply to observe, listen and learn about the culture. Because of this, we were discouraged from spending too much time with other expats.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed in my tiny room before dinner, I flipped through the guide book I had brought along and reviewed the history. Besides the undercurrent of fear (Uganda had come out of a bloody civil war just a few years before), I was curious about the assumptions others made about me because I was white. Though I was a student, they assumed I was rich. How else could I afford to fly here? But in working at the all-Ugandan organization, I also sensed a hesitation to allow me to do useful work.

I paused after rereading that Uganda had been a protectorate of the British government from 1894 to 1962. My only context for colonization was reading and watching the film Out of Africa, a book published in 1937, but taking place in the early 1900’s about a woman from Denmark moving to east Africa to start a coffee plantation. The film glamorized life as a white woman living in colonial Africa.

But as a white woman in Uganda, I sensed that I was not trusted. It had only been 38 years since the country had been liberated from the rule of whites. Though I was not British and had nothing to do with the history of imperialism in Africa, I was still snagged in the web.

Along with a feeling of distrust, I also noticed a hardly veiled acceptance of white supremacy. Attending a graduation ceremony, I was asked to stand as I was the “honored guest.” At a Christian meeting at the university that was attended by several hundred students, I was asked to give an impromptu speech. At church services, I was ushered to the front for VIP seating. At a ceremony celebrating the development of a local non-profit that I attended in a village several hours away, the news camera stayed fixed on me even though I had nothing to do with any of it.

To be white was to be noticed, honored and lauded.

An article written 14 years after I lived in Uganda, “Shell and Bolton’s Discriminatory Advert in Uganda Highlights the Problems of Race in Africa talks about an overtly racist advertisement asking specifically for white applicants. In it, the author suggests that “privileging of people based on their skin color has permeated all aspects of African societies.”

And in a Lonely Planet forum, a traveler asked the question: “What is the attitude of the locals towards whites, especially in rural areas? Is there any kind of resentment or xenophobia?” One answer was as follows: “If you are Asian (especially Indian, but they throw all Asians in the same bag), it is pretty racist, but you’ll be fine. If you are Caucasian, they’ll love ya.” Also on this forum was a discussion about certain clubs and restaurants that were only for white expats, not for Ugandans.

Although I often resented the stereotypes my African friends had about muzungus, being in Uganda was the first time I noticed my own whiteness and the effect it had on the people around me. Unlike most Americans, my African family ate at different times of day, exchanged elaborate greetings in passing, viewed time and relationships differently and completed ordinary tasks in ways that often seemed bizarre to me.

A white shape snipped from the page of white culture and pasted onto a canvas splashed with exotic colors and textures, I finally saw my own race.

To be white was to be suspected. To be white was to be feared. And yet to be white was to be envied.

I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw in the mirror.

***

Tomorrow I’ll be writing about being white in China, so be sure to come back and join in the story-telling.

Have you ever lived abroad? What did you learn about your home culture through that experience?

If colonialism is still an undercurrent in Uganda and other African countries, how much is segregation, Jim Crow and slavery still leaking into our thinking in the United States today?

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 14: The Culture of Whiteness {31 Days of #WOKE}

“The colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people will ever know and understand themselves.”
–James Weldon Johnson, poet and anthologist (1912)

 

The one African American on my all-white team in China had this little book in her apartment called Stuff White People Like. Flipping through, it was hard to disagree with some of the stereotypes. Amazon describes it like this:

“They love nothing better than sipping free-trade gourmet coffee … Apple products, indie music, food co-ops, and vintage T-shirts make them weak in the knees.

They believe they’re unique, yet somehow they’re all exactly the same … They’re also down with diversity and up on all the best microbrews, breakfast spots, foreign cinema, and authentic sushi. They’re organic, ironic, and do not own TVs.

You know who they are: They’re white people. And they’re here, and you’re gonna have to deal. Fortunately, here’s a book that investigates, explains, and offers advice for finding social success with the Caucasian persuasion. So kick back on your IKEA couch and lose yourself in the ultimate guide to the unbearable whiteness of being.”

White people don’t usually think about the culture of whiteness. We think the way we operate is the way everyone operates–or at least the way everyone should operate.

But can “whiteness” really be defined?

Our families are our first introduction to culture, yet it only takes one sleepover or meal at another person’s house to discover our differences—the way we fold laundry, put the dishes in the dishwasher, take shoes off at the door (or not), have the T.V. front and center in the living room or not visible at all, toys scattered around the house or relegated to the toy room in the basement. “Whiteness” is not the same across the board.

College may be our next crash-course in understanding our personal white culture. I traveled from Florida to attend college in the Midwest and my roommates laughed at my strange way of talking (mainly thanks to my mother from Georgia). I quickly changed “neck-ed” to “NAKE-ed” and altered the way I said “ruin” and “poem” as I realized I was at high risk of mockery. I can’t tell you how many dorm room conversations we had that went something like this:

“How do you say that [pointing at the bottle on the desk]?”

“Pop. What do YOU say?”

“I say soda. YOU?”

“That’s a Coke—but even if it were a Dr. Pepper, I’d still call it a ‘Coke.’”

The nuances of the English language provided hours of hilarity.

Marriage is also an on-going experiment in realizing how different we are from another human being. I was appalled to discover my husband hung his clothes in the closet facing right, while I have always hung mine the “right” way—facing left.

I squeeze every ounce out of the toothpaste tube, while he wastes at least a week’s worth of toothpaste in favor of a fresh tube. He likes to arrive to parties fifteen minutes early, I like to arrive five minutes late. (“People hate it when you get there early!” I always tell him.) I’m fine going to bed with a sink full of dirty dishes, while he would rather stay up late to fall in bed knowing a clean kitchen awaits him in the morning. The backdrop of life with another person highlights the myriad ways we are different.

White in Chicago differed from white in Georgia, Florida, New Jersey or Washington State (all places my relatives lived). Now that we live in Colorado, whiteness looks like moms in wild leggings, crowded hiking trails, craft beer and bicycles with trailers to haul babies around. But liberal Boulder is drastically different from the ranching cities dotting the plains on the east end of the state.

My sleepy Colorado city—the last stoplight before ascending the canyon to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park– looks like drive-through liquor stores, shops called “One Love” and “Hazy Hippo” selling pot paraphernalia and loud pickup trucks. And yet, as a hub for over 200 artists, it is also characterized by hundreds of sculptures scattered throughout the city. “Whiteness” cannot be so easily defined.

Until you become a minority.

Then you discover a few things about what it means to be “white” …

Over the next couple days, I’ll reflect on some lessons I learned about whiteness through the times I have been a minority, so be sure you come back tomorrow!

What does “whiteness” look like where you live?

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.