Wednesday, December 5, 2012

White on Rice

As I walk to the checkout counter with a bag full of fresh vegetables, toothpaste, oreos, and 6 liters of boxed milk, I hear two voices behind me having an interesting discussion, “Kan waiguoren!” “Ni jeude ta shi nali de?” “Keneng ta shi jianada de. Ta hen shuai.” “Ta ting de dong ma?” “Ta ting bu dong.” (Look at that foreigner! Where do you think he’s from?  Maybe he’s from Canada. He’s handsome. Does he understand? No, he can’t understand.)  Being mistaken for a Canadian and having my good looks wrongly credited, I slowly turn around and add, “Wo ting de dong zhongwen,” (I understand Chinese.)  Besides scoring yet another point for America being the best looking country in the world, my goal, of course, is to embarrass the two girls so they realize that it is rude to assume ignorance.  Nevertheless, as was the case the last 15 times I tried to embarrass someone for assuming I can’t understand Chinese, the two voices respond in unison, “WOAH! Ta hui shuo women de zhongwen!” (Wow! He can speak ‘our’ Chinese!)  With that, I go from a monkey buying groceries to talking monkey buying groceries and continue my day.
Since coming to China, there are some things that I have gotten used to such as cramming onto buses in a disorderly fashion, firecrackers at sunrise, and bargaining for items which have a publically displayed fixed price.  One thing I have not gotten used to, and actually have more and more trouble getting over, is the extreme stereotyping of westerners.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, generalizing is a huge issue here in Kaili, and is only surpassed in frequency by stereotyping.  I try to pick my battles wisely, but sometimes I am dragged to the front lines and given no choice in the matter.  When in the act of successfully eating with chopsticks, I am still asked, “Can you use chopsticks?”  After responding with the mind-blowing truth, “Yes. I learned at a young age.  Most Americans can. We often use chopsticks to eat Oriental food in America,” the inquisitor will still disagree with their direct experience citing a solitary 5th hand story to the contrary.
In addition to lacking the motor skills to pinch two sticks together, here’s a brief list of all the thing I’ve learned about Americans since coming to China.
-We only eat bread. (I’m sometimes asked if I have any bread on my person and feel genuinely expected to respond, “Yes, of course! Would you like some?”)
-We all have guns.  (‘All’ is not hyperbole.  They really mean 100%.  I got in a debate with a man in a train telling me I was wrong and his TV was right.)
-We can’t eat spicy food.
-We don’t drink tea.
-We are all fat, rich, and white.
-We are all beautiful… despite apparently also all being fat?
-We love to find Chinese wives.
-We only shower in the morning.
These are only the absolutes projected onto Americans.  In a society where nobody has a real experience with someone from another country, every nationality is the victim of a stereotype that can endure logical argument like cockroaches in Chernobyl: Japanese, Northern Chinese, Africans, women, teachers, 23 year olds…  You’d think you were in a UPS shop, the way people are putting everything so neatly into boxes over here.  The most unfortunate thing about all this is that all my stereotypes are made on first sight because my white skin christens me, “Laowai” (Foreigner).  Sometimes, I forget that I’m not Chinese, but in 5 minutes, a local is sure to remind me by saying to nobody in particular, “Laowai,” “Waiguoren,” or simply “Hello,” because every white person is from an English speaking country.
This is definitely a new perspective for me, now that I am part of the .00001% minority in city whose only other experience with foreigners has been filtered through a Mao ze Dong approved firewall.


  1. HAving just spent 5 weeks in China and that week with you, I can totally relate to this story. I was asked so many times 'can you eat spicy food'? and 'can you eat with chopsticks'. I learned to push and shove my way onto a bus or train and never allowed people to CUT into the line as I waited to purchase a ticket or enter a gate. You are educating them everyday on the uniqueness of Americans.

  2. Having been here the same amount of time as you, I feel like I haven't had a new conversation (or something surprising happen in a conversation) for something like 15 months. Unfortunately, the more Chinese I learn, the more monotonous my conversations with strangers seem to become. At almost any given time, I find that I can pick out which girl is going to say, "你好帅哥" and which guy is going to yell out, "Haii boy!!!!" a millisecond after we cross paths, and which old guys are going to ask me about guns in America.

    Although, one strange thing happened to me just today, as I was talking to a man about guns.

    "There was a shooting in America," he informed me.
    "No, that was a couple days ago," I corrected him. "But did you hear about the students getting run over by that man today?"
    "What are you talking about?" he asked.

    Somehow I learned about the car incident in Hebei before the firefighters were killed in New York, and vice versa for the man I was speaking to.

    I understand our fascination with guns in America as well as the Chinese do, so it's hard to explain anything. But I've often found they ignore (or, more probably, are not told of) the violence in China, and fear that they would die by gunshot within their first day in the United States if they were ever to travel there.

    Meanwhile, no one wears a seatbelt. And I'm the clown when I reach for it.