The Brood: Halfway through my experience in China, I arrived at a breaking point. The feeling of being a foreigner in a foreign land transformed from an anthropological experience into an alienating one. How does trust develop in an environment where its hard for others to see you, as you?
As I’ve written about before, one of the most rewarding aspects of living in China has been seeing what the world looks like when you are in the utter minority of a society. That article was a bit anthropological, though. I’d like to be more personal.
While its true that there are privileges to being a white person in China, (you can read hot takes like this one, this one, and this one) it’s often couched in terms and ideas that describe the effects of white supremacy in the West. Let me emphasize that while the historical effects of white supremacy are certainly still felt to this day in China, Han Chinese are at the top of their society’s power structures. In this power structure, for most Chinese people, we are a spectacle.
On the one hand, this is too harsh. Most Chinese people have never seen a foreigner in the flesh. According to the China Daily in 2011, there were 600,000 foreigners living in a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people. You would be shocked to see a foreigner, too.
On the other hand, there’s some truth to it. In this New York Times piece, a recruiter in the business of renting out foreigners for promotional reasons explains that the presence of a white person gives many Chinese people a sense that they have made it. A sense that they are a worldly, cultured, classy person.
While perhaps understandable, the nature of this market is a little disturbing. The Recruiter trades in objectifying people who are different from her, and cashes in when she manipulates the emotions of her countrymen when they buy overvalued property partially because someone with a white complexion was associated with it.
These are called “白猴子” or “White Monkey Jobs“, which are exactly what they sound like. Jobs where the primary function is to have a white foreigner be present, giving legitimacy or excitement to an event. You don’t always know you are doing a white monkey job. I’ve been fooled many times.
The most notable example is when a teacher at my university said a retired colleague of hers needed Americans to give an hour lecture about American culture in the nearby city of Xiangyang. My co-fellow and I gladly accepted. When we went on the road, we discovered that we would be in this city for a full day longer than advertised and that these lectures would only be 5 minutes long. To make a long story short, my co-fellow and I had been lured into being monkeys for a company that helped high achieving students apply for college in the US. When we made it clear we wouldn’t stay another day, they replaced us with a 250-pound Russian man who they claimed was “Canadian”.
Of course, the people engaged in such behavior don’t necessarily know that what they are doing is wrong. This spills over into personal relationships, too, after all.
One of the friends I’ve met here in Wuhan is a local guy we’ll call Paul. Paul teaches guitar, is a part-time salesman, and part-owner of a guitar shop run by his friend. We met when I walked into a local guitar shop to browse and he immediately took an interest. We bonded over the love of music and guitar. Over the next few months, he would show me around Wuhan, introduce me to his many friends, and even put together a birthday celebration for me.
Over time, and especially after the Xiangyang incident, it became clear that part of the appeal of showing me around Wuhan and introducing me to those many friends was that he got to show off that he had a foreign, white friend. Suddenly playing music with Paul and his friends felt less like a group of dudes hanging out, and more like I was yet again the white monkey, only this time with a guitar. I began to pull away.
There tend to be two kinds of responses to this situation. One kind of White person will inhabit the same mental space they inhabit in America: “I’m in the normal one, these Chinese people are so funny and strange. At least I can get into clubs for free!” In the other mindset, you begin to notice that you are the strange one. You pick up on the thousands of small ways people emphasize how much you are the other, and suddenly you don’t feel very great about being the dancing white monkey in the club.
That alienation is hard to escape when you try to integrate yourself into Chinese life. Walking down the street most faces stare at you with curiosity, fetishization, suspicion, amusement, bewilderment, happiness or contempt. Conversations can range from the well-meaning “Where are you from? You must be very rich.” to the more xenophobic “Why do you hate China?”
It’s why most foreigners retreat into small packs and become very cynical about the society around them. It’s hard to know if someone is talking to you because they think you’re a way to blow off steam, a spectacle, or a trophy friend, or a potential source of white monkey labor or income. It can be hard to trust. “What do they want from me?”
Thankfully there is one pool of Chinese people that reliably see my fullness as a person: my students. After all part of the difficulty in breaking the White Monkey problem is communication. In my classes, Chinglish helps bridge the difference, even if students are still afraid to death of making an English mistake in front of me.
Nonetheless, I came to Wuhan hoping to overcome the culture gap and make some genuinely close friends here. Instead, I’ve only become more intimately acquainted with its contours. But that might be the first step to breaking through it. After all, even though it gets distorted, there’s still a lot of goodwill out there. It’s been a few months since I spoke to Paul. Maybe I should give him a second chance.
Have you ever lived in China? What was your experience? Did race figure into it? What was it like trying to make friends? What should I write about next? Comment and share your thoughts!
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Written and edited by Dylan Welch, co-host and creator of the Municipals podcast.