A dark side
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Racism is a pretty ugly word and a harder pill to swallow when you first encounter it. Having lived and traveled in different countries, having worked and being friends with many many kinds of people from many countries it was always something that happened to someone else. I just pretended that it can't happen to me and ignored it as one of those things that you read. While its true that most aspects of racism are more subtle than overt, when it finally gob-smacks you in the face, you are left reeling and wondering "Did that just happen or am I just imagining it".
The last few weeks in China has seen the media and expat blogs get worked up over Weibo comments made by Yang Rui, a commentator on the CCTV English Channel who seems to think he's the Arnab Goswami of English News in China. He runs a show called Dialogue where he interviews talking heads on global issues. Thusly, (I've always wanted to use this in a sentence!) he is the English mouthpiece of the state owned broadcaster.
By all accounts, he posted on his Weibo, which is the Great Firewall of China approved Twitter, a rant about how foreigners have to to be kicked out and how they are corrupting the nation and so on which can be read about here, here and here. If you read the text, one can argue that it is aimed at foreigners who are living/working in the country illegally, of which there are seemingly quite a few. One can also say that this simply is one man's nationalistic fervour being taken to an extreme, to the point of him coming off as xenophobic. While that may be true, one should not forget that in a homogenous country like China where just one group (the Han) make up over 90% of the community, that given the right triggers, xenophobia could manifest itself as racism. And racism is bad, m'kay?
The brief stints that I've had in China and my associations with Chinese friends and colleagues has told me a wholly different story. As a brown guy, I have had wonderful experiences living and travelling in China. I have good Chinese friends and co-workers who I'm very proud of knowing. I have Indian friends who have lived here for years and absolutely love it. I have friends who are mixed race - Indian and Chinese. I cannot in the least bit say that I have been treated with anything less than respect and dignity. And with them there always the kidding and poking and the ever present self -deprecating humour - who does not love that ???
Is racism present in China ? Of course it is - which country doesn't have it? In India, salesmen at a retail outlets would absolutely fawn over white people, while ignoring their Indian spouses and being downright boorish towards black students from Africa. China is no different as any visit to a mall would tell you. Ads would feature Western (read white) faces touting anything from English classes to Chinese wine. The thought here being that having a white brand ambassador lends a sense of legitimacy and a just a touch of class.
This type of racism also presents itself when non-whites apply for English teaching jobs. It's these type of jobs that caused Yang Ruis to throw a fit. Job classifieds would say "Native speakers required". Fair enough, you'd need to speak the language at a native level to be able to effectively teach it. But what the subtext says is "White people needed - English teaching ability of absolutely no consequence" You might as well be fricking Borat and you can get still a job teaching English. Which is probably exactly why the nationalists types are less than happy with so many lao wei arriving in the China to teach English. Even in the class-heirarchy of expats in China, these kind of English teachers seem to be regarded the lowest form of life, second only to the "Face Actors". Many of these 'teachers' and 'actors' are here on tourist or student visas and working illegaly.
But as usual, I digress. My point behind this post is about rising racism in China. Media corporations like CCTV and media persons like Yang Rui are not daft. What is concerning is how they come up with a position like this. Any savvy marketer would know that bad news sell. Who would ever want to hear a news report which says "55,251 foreigners are peacefully working in Shanghai". In this day and age no one wants to know how students are learning science by action - leave that to the Discovery Channel. What makes sexy copy will be the people like Raj Thackeray, Vattal Nagaraj and Yang Rui stirring up the masses and thereby get more votes, TRP, clicks&eyeballs or whatever
This cannot happen without an existing undercurrent of dissent or dissatisfaction among the teeming thousands - if not the millions. In China, this is perpetuated with foreigners earning several times more than locals. For example even MNCs are required by law to pay foreigners 1.35x what a local would earn. There is the feeling that many foreigners (myself included?) have taken away jobs from the locals and are abusing the system and corrupting the culture. Several commentors on Weibo have apparently have hit on this in reponse to recent incidents where some foreigners have taken douchebaggery to epic levels. If there are a vocal few, can the belligerent many be far behind?
Normally, I would not have given much thought to this and would have dismissed it as yet another incident which is overplayed by Western media and the expat blogging community and would have gone ahead living my boring life. But an incident on the children's playground in my apartment complex shook it all. What should have been a routine evening taking my son on the slide and play-gym turned out be an eye opener in racism and how it can exhibits itself at the most innocent of locations.
My son was clambering over the gym; cheering, clapping, laughing at me, himself, everything and nothing as only an 18-month old can. There were two girls of about 3 and 5 who were also playing on the same contraption. My son was trying to communicate with them despite having no knowledge of Chinese (or any other language for that matter), was gesturing and pointing and inviting them to play with him. While the younger girl didn't mind playing along and sharing her toys, the older child looked at him and said something that froze my blood.
"Wǒ bù xǐhuan wàiguó rén"
" I don't like foreigners"
my Chinese is not good. but I can understand enough. Where does a 5 year old come up with something like this? I refuse to believe that this was something she thought up on her own. She must have heard this from her family who must talk about this at the dinner table. She must be echoing the thoughts of what one parent must have said to another while complaining about the slave driving foreign devil manager at the office who took away his promotion. She was probably parroting one of her classmates who in turn learnt in from her uncle.
Who knows. The end result is that I had carried my son immediately to another set playground toys away from all of this and hoped that he would not have to hear this ever again at an age when he can actually comprehend what it means and ask me "Dad, why don't people like me? What did I do to them". I chose to ignore this and bury my head again in the sand rather than think of a retort to a 5 year. I chose to believe that it was a one off thing and will not happen again. I chose to turn away.
Which is when I heard the younger girl say
"Wǒ yě bù xǐhuan wàiguó rén"
" I too don't like foreigners"
Trampled byY Trip at Thursday, May 31, 2012