This is the third article in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich.
“Being white” is not something I really think about on a daily basis and, like a lot of people, talking about race makes me cringe just a little bit. But once in China I soon realized that my entire experience would be shaped by this part of my identity that I have rarely been concerned with- the fact that I was white. And not only white, but 5 foot 9'' with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes.
Many Chinese have an idea of what a “Westerner” looks like and, for better or worse, I fit the bill exactly. Even after I had gotten to know a number of people in my local neighborhood I couldn’t walk down the street without choruses of “Hello! Hello!” from passersby (usually followed by fits of giggles). Grandmothers urged their barely toddling grandchildren to stumble over and practice their English on me. Some stopped and stared shamelessly, and others asked to have their picture taken with me and my boyfriend (also sandy blonde and blue-eyed). Being white meant being invited to join the tables of generous strangers every time we walked into a Chinese nightclub, attending cultural events as a “special guests” and being told we were beautiful until even we were sick of hearing it.
Unfortunately, my typical Western appearance also had my Chinese acquaintances assuming I must live up to other stereotypes including- being completely helpless (it took me three weeks to convince my fellow teachers that I could in fact cook my own food) and exceedingly wealthy (my students were very disappointed that I didn’t own an iPhone or know Steve Jobs). And watch out: the “rich foreigner” stereotype can lead the local fruit salesman to add a mysterious and exorbitant “Western tax” to your purchases if you don’t haggle with enough vigor.
Why so many misconceptions surrounding foreigners in China? Part of the reason is that there just aren’t that many of them. The National Bureau of Statistics reported last year that there were approximately 600,000 foreigners living in China: 210,000 in Shanghai, over 100,000 in Beijing, and little old Chengdu is home to only 20,000. That may sound like a lot but in a city of 11.3 million people it makes seeing a foreigner quite an oddity for the average Chengdu resident. Perhaps it was this lack of exposure that led our favorite restaurant proprietor to misguidedly declare one day as he sat down next to my boyfriend, “You know- you look just like George Bush.” As you can probably guess, my boyfriend, in addition to being some 40-years younger and considerably more attractive, looks absolutely nothing like our former head of state. But as lots of Chinese people will explain to you, it’s hard to tell. All those whities just look the same.
The “celebrity treatment” I received as a white foreigner in Chengdu was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, but while most of it was positive attention (who doesn’t like being called beautiful everyday by her students?) it can also be isolating and invasive. At times I felt more like a walking freak show. A particularly memorable incident occurred in the gym shower when I turned to see three curious women chatting and peeping in to get a good look at the lone laowi (foreigner) patron of the gym. Wherever I went I drew attention, and I often longed for the anonymity that living in a large city usually brings.
There is no doubt, however, that being white in China has distinct advantages in the employment department. Western people, like Western products, hold a certain social status in China. White foreigners are fairly scarce so demand (and pay) is high for all kinds of positions desiring people with their “qualification.” Indeed some white foreigners in China have made a living off of, well, being foreign in China. The supply of what my friends and I termed “White Monkey Jobs” was seemingly endless. The most common are oral English teaching positions (though there are also many qualified and talented foreign teachers) but the longer time spent in China, the more opportunities we seemed to discover. I answered an ad near the end of my contract offering to pay Western women to sit at tables near the front of their bar to attract customers. Other ridiculous jobs included a fellow teacher who had been paid by a Chinese girl to pose to as her boyfriend at a family gathering over Chinese Spring Festival and a friend paid to attend a Chinese business meeting to give clout to the company as a “European member of the team.” One weekend, my boyfriend, Ed, and I caved and accepted an invitation to earn extra cash working as “models” for the opening of a small boutique clothing store. They dressed Ed in clothes from the racks, introduced him formally as a “visiting designer from England” and I watched, posing in the storefront window, as he ceremoniously cut the ribbon to open the store and poured champagne over a tower of glasses.
I'd never experienced the strange sensation of being a commodity before. It was no longer my educational background, my skills of communication or work ethic that recommended me to prospective employers, but simply the fact that I was white. It was hard not to feel a few pangs of guilt at the fact that as a foreign teacher at my public middle school, I was paid nearly three times the average wage of a Chinese teacher, as well as provided with a fully furnished apartment and food stipend.
Even with schools, it’s not uncommon for recruitment ads to specify just what kind of foreigner the directors have in mind. The usual requirement for an oral English teaching position is to be a native speaker but that is often followed by the stipulation, “Must look like a typical foreigner,” “White foreigners only, please” or they simply ask you to attach a photo and decide for themselves. It’s racial discrimination that would be unheard of in the West today but most schools are hiring foreign teachers not only as teachers but as selling points to appeal to parents. Some schools openly refuse to hire Black English speakers (including, I discovered, the company with which I was contracted) or native speakers of Asian descent because they don’t have the same social bonus. Others simply believe, as one teacher told me, that “white people speak better English.”
As with any commodity, however, exploitation goes both ways. Take the time I was warmly invited by two of the high school teachers at my neighbor school to go “sight-seeing.” I found myself that afternoon not in a tea house or temple but trolling around a furniture department store where a man handed my co-workers an envelope of cash and followed us around taking various posed pictures of me trying out beds and sitting on chairs. The next morning my speculations on the whole thing were put to rest with a glance at the front page of Chengdu’s daily paper where there was a picture of me, obligingly stroking a table with a caption that read: “Foreign investor inspects new furniture exhibition.”
The lack of foreigners and desire to emulate the West is what drives the baffling market of white publicity in China, but as the country opens its borders and hurdles into the future, I'm sure attitudes towards foreigners will also change. The days of the white celebrity are numbered (probably for the best), but for now being white in China remains a uniquely surreal and slightly disturbing experience in which one exists simultaneously as a celebrity, a commodity, and sometimes just a plain mystery.
Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.