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 4: Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack {31 Days of #WOKE}

Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack--the danger of stereotypes

All Americans are loud, carry backpacks, wear sneakers, eat dessert and junk food, are overweight, speak only one language, are promiscuous, kick our kids out at age 18 and are rich. These are a few of the stereotypes about Americans I’ve heard in my travels, but especially from my Chinese friends during the five years I lived in northwest China.

“We know you love sweets,” my Chinese students said as I passed out brownies after dinner one Sunday evening. Three shy freshman students had come over to “teach” me how to cook Chinese food (a.k.a. they argued about how to do it the way their mothers had done it while I frantically scribbled notes on index cards). In an attempt to find something authentically American to serve to them, brownies was all I could come up with.

“Yes, many Americans like sweets,” I said. But then I blew them away.

“But I never ate dessert in my home.” They traded glances, questioning my sincerity since I had already rattled their worlds as I told them earlier that I loved spicy Chinese food and rarely ate burgers back in the states.

After five years in China, silence would still descend upon the room as I sat down to dinner with a new group of students in a restaurant. “You can use chopsticks?!” they would gasp, in awe of my skill. Snapping up a piece of eggplant from the dish, I’d suppress my sarcastic reply.

We stereotype others because it makes us feel like we are in control. It gives us a framework to solve the mystery of the “other.”

Don’t think you have stereotypes? Slowly read through this list and see what words your brain inserts:

Men are …

Women are …

Three year olds are …

Introverts like …

Extroverts like …

Evangelical Christians are …

Muslims are …

African Americans are …

Chinese are …

Mexicans are …

Indians are …

If you found yourself quickly responding with a word or phrase, you have made a stereotype.

Some stereotypes are helpful for decoding culture, but most insult the humanity of the unique individual. There is a striking scene in the T.V. show The Man in the High Castle where a Japanese family invites a white American man over under the guise of friendship. The couple rattles off questions about music and sports that whites “usually like,” but are increasingly disappointed when the man doesn’t fit their stereotypes. The white man senses he let down his new friends, but isn’t sure why.

It’s a scene I experienced many times in China and Uganda when friends would assume they understood me, only to find I didn’t fit their mold. I sensed their disappointment when I couldn’t educate them on pop culture or fashion in America. Some Americans might have cared, but I didn’t.

During my senior year of college I lived with an African family in a village outside of Kampala, Uganda. It was considered a middle class home, yet we didn’t have running water. The house servants washed dishes in the morning on a wooden table in the front yard as chickens squawked in the distance. Feeling useless, I offered to rise at dawn and help wash dishes. My host mother looked skeptical. “But we will just have to rewash them,” she said. “I know you have machines that do that in your country.”

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave the infamous TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she said: “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar …

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I believe relationship is the key to deconstructing stereotypes. It is in relationship that we can finally see that we are more similar than we thought. At our core, we all desire love, purpose and security.

Unfortunately you may not have the opportunity to live with an African family, teach in the inner city or have a Muslim live in your home. And even experiencing other cultures in that way does not ensure you do not have stereotypes. So what can you do?

Read, listen and learn. Seek out new and possibly uncomfortable friendships. Pray for fresh eyes, open ears and humble hearts. Peel away the stereotypes you have formed and allow each person to stand on their own as the unique individuals they were created to be. But I would also encourage you to tell your own story. You never know when you might smash someone else’s stereotype of “people like you.”

***

What stereotypes do you have about the “other”?

How do these diminish the humanity of your neighbor?

Have you ever been hurt by being stereotyped?

If you haven’t, I would highly recommend watching “The Danger of a Single Story”:

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.

 

Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack