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.
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.
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.
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).
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!).
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.