Maria Holland

Privilege and Discrimination in China

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2015 at 2:10 am

It’s been a rough day so far.  First, I went to the supermarket to return some laundry detergent.  The hotel staff had told me I needed my own laundry detergent to do laundry, which is not even remotely the case.  So I had never opened it or used it, always intending (hoping is really the more accurate word) to return it.  I finally went today and was not successful.  The woman asked why I was returning it when I said I didn’t need it, she scoffed as if to say, What kind of reason is that?  I also had the audacity to try to return it several weeks after buying it, and when she realized this she just walked away.  Foreigners be crazy. 

Then I went to the train ticket, in the continued quest to replace the ticket I lost.  At the train station, they couldn’t find it because they needed the exact train number, and I think the guy sold me an alternate train because the one I wanted was sold out.  So I went back to the original place I bought the ticket, to ask him if he could look up exactly what I had bought.  I had my passport, which I had also presented when I bought the ticket – train tickets are registered to individuals as much as plane tickets are in the US, which is a little bit of a hassle but also my only hope of getting that ticket back.  The man behind the counter immediately told me he couldn’t help me.  We don’t have any records, he said – with a straight face – as he sat behind the computer into which he had typed my passport number, from which he had printed my ticket.

There is just no way I believe that.  No way.  I’m pretty sure that 没办法 (there’s no way) is just shorthand for 太麻烦了,我不愿意 (too much hassle, I don’t want to).  I think this because, in the past, I’ve cried in offices and gotten what I needed; a foreign woman crying in public is apparently more hassle than helping said foreign woman.  

This is exactly why we foreigners need a class on 生气 (getting mad) in Chinese.  What can I say that is effective in convincing this person to help me?  How can I make it clear that, contrary to his desires, not helping me will be more of a hassle than helping me?

I don’t know.  So I walked away.  He won, and I lost.  I lost 270元, as I’ll have to buy a new ticket, but it’s about more than the money.  It’s the certainty that I’m getting screwed over, that I have no means of recourse, that if I were a different person the result would have been different.  

This leads into something that has been on my mind a lot on this trip to China.  Foreigners in China occupy a very special position, often the beneficiaries of truly ridiculous preferential treatment, like my friends in Xiamen getting paid to literally sit in a bar and drink with people, presumably so that the bar became known as a place where foreigners went to hang out?  Or the way many Americans get jobs “teaching English” with no credential other than a passport and big eyes.  I definitely have more friends in China than I would if I had to win them on my own merits.  In many situations, I’m given the benefit of the doubt – assumed smart, rich, beautiful, interesting, and influential until proven otherwise. 

The flip side is, we’re outsiders in an insular country.  While sometimes this is an advantageous position (we’re exotic, that’s for sure), it can be a place from which certain things are practically or actually impossible.  There are certain hotels foreigners can’t stay at, certain provinces we sometimes can’t travel to.  I was told I couldn’t go on a church trip because I was a foreigner, couldn’t get a library card that allowed me to actually check out books because I was a foreigner, couldn’t use any internet bar in Jilin because I was a foreigner – on a legal visa, and for most of the time, as an invited guest of the Chinese government.  We lived in separate accomodations, theoretically for our comfort but we also paid maybe 100 times what the students paid, and I’m not convinced the separation was not to protect Chinese students from our influence.  

The preferential treatment I sometimes receive in China has made me conscious of white privilege in a way that I’m not in the US.  Because that’s what this is, basically.  (I’ve read about African-Americans having English-teaching job offers rescinded after the schools learned that they were black; this despite the fact that no one had a problem with the other five teachers for the English Aerospace Summer Camp coming from France, Romania, and Iran.  I don’t begrudge anyone’s desire to learn ‘unaccented’ or ‘standard’ English, but to pretend that that is somehow correlated with complexion is absurd.)  This is not to say that I don’t experience white privilege in the US, but that it’s easier to believe it’s something I deserve, something that I’ve earned.  I am smart, beautiful, and interesting, right??

And the obstacles I have sometimes faced while living here have helped me to understand the barriers that exist for others back home.  Yes, some of these are laws, which were a vivid reality in the US 50 years ago but not so much anymore; but some of them are just people taking advantage of me because they think I don’t know better or know I can’t do anything about it.  Some of them are people just not giving a shit about me, not being understanding about the difficulties that I face in my daily life, writing me off because I sound “different” and they interpret that as “stupid”.  

Now take the conversation I had with my labmates after the train ticket failure.  I told them that the guy told me he couldn’t look up my ticket, and they said he should be able to.  I agree, but the fact remains that he didn’t.  They act like it doesn’t make sense, when it makes sense to me – he knew he could refuse to help me and eventually I, reaching the limits of my language and guanxi, would slink off and leave him alone.  Their takeaway is that service is bad in China, which is a valid point, but beside mine – that service in China is different, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, for foreigners than for Chinese. 

After a few minutes of the conversation, a niggling fear surfaces – maybe I’m overreacting, maybe he didn’t understand me.  But no, I reassure myself, we had a perfectly intelligible conversation; he repeated my request back to me and clearly said he couldn’t do it.  Or maybe he really couldn’t help me?  My labmates were unanimously of the opinion, both before and after the fact, that this was a thing that he should be able to do.  

I read a lot of news and essays online, and after reading article after article written as part of our “national conversation” about race, how can I not hear echoes of those writers in my private complaints?  “It’s the certainty that I’m getting screwed over, that I have no means of recourse, that if I were a different person the result would have been different.”  That’s like, my understanding of racism in a nutshell.  How many other sentences above could work, with a word of two changed, in an article about the experience of black people in America?  It all reminds me very much of an essay I just read.

This is not an attempt to complain about my life in China.  This morning was kind of crappy, but on the whole, the privileged moments outweigh the discriminatory, and (this is probably true of the whole world) many of the obstacles can be surmounted, one way or another, with money – which, as I earn dollars and spend yuan, is just not as big of a deal to me as to the Chinese.  I just think it’s important to acknowledge the influence this treatment has on foreigners’ perceptions of China (including mine), and, as I try with other aspects of culture, to use my experiences in China to better understand my own country.  

Gifts

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2015 at 7:50 am

We haven’t had internet in the hotel for several days now; the person who borrowed the router apparently has not seen fit to return it.  So, had to do my interneting this morning.  

The day was fairly nondescript; I worked and made some progress, but never enough :)  I listened to country music while I worked, and between that and showing my labmates pictures of my dogs at home, I missed the US . . . 

At dinner, I sat across from the undergrad, which is trying for both of us.  He is like the voice in my ear that keeps me from getting too proud by constantly whispering “your Chinese isn’t that good”.  It’s a blessing and a curse, you know, having understanding friends in a foreign language.  I experienced it first among the construction workers I worked with on the farm; for years afterwards I would realize things that I had learned wrong.  Friends just let you get away with too much stuff – that’s why we have teachers.  

This undergrad keeps me honest, though.  Let’s not beat around the bush here – my tones are pretty terrible.  Today, I found out that 赵, the last name of both my priest in Xiamen and one of my closest friends here, is fourth tone instead of second tone.  If this undergrad were my only friend here, I would have much less fun but my tones would be perfect by now.  

We also had an extremely painful convesation about how to make 小笼包, or soup dumplings.  At one point, GuoYang offered to translate – from Chinese to Chinese.  Sigh.

After dinner, I decided it was time to give them their gifts.  I couldn’t wait any longer, haha.  In addition to notes hand-written in my childish Chinese characters, I gave Zhao Yan, the only guy who really drinks, a bottle of American Honey (honey whiskey); GuoYang got a copy of River of Doubt, a book I recommended to him because he said he was interested in history and culture; and for Cheng, who is going to MIT this fall, I’m buying her first meal (20 dollars, cash) and I gave her a bunch of music I thought she would like.  

So now, I’ve introduced my labmates to xkcd, PHD comics, phrases like “you had one job”, Catan, country music, and honey whiskey.  They’ve really gotten the full Maria experience – I think I could only share more of my favorite things with them if we could go to Saddlerack and I could bake them something with pumpkin in it.  

Things I Luckily Didn’t Leave at Home, and Things I Should Have

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2015 at 10:12 am

I went to Mass today at the North Cathedral – last Mass in Beijing.  There was some activity going on, ton of young people in matching blue shirts, so I couldn’t sit where I usually do.  But it’s always nice to see full churches.  

I think every time I’ve gone to Mass in Beijing, I see someone instructing someone else how to put their arms over the chest in order to receive a blessing at Communion.  I wonder if Chinese Catholics bring a lot of non-Catholic friends to Mass?

Afterwards, I went to a nice Xinjian restaurant at Xizhimen to have lunch with the two friends of a friend who took me to lunch when I first got here.  

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Every single time I offer treat, I fret about not having enough money.  Every single time.  This time I had 450元.  A lot of the dishes were around 150元, so I was legitimately worried.  I even asked if they took credit cards, but they said only domestic cards worked.  I tried to stay calm as we ordered, but they said what I suggested was too much and reduced it.  We ended up getting a “big plate of chicken”, a plate of noodles, a few lamb sticks, some bread, eggplant and green beans, and Xinjiang [salty?!] milk tea.  It was still a ton of food, and delicious, and cost 130元 (around $20).  This also happens every single time I offer to treat – I can’t believe how cheap it was, and that I was ever worried.

I got a ride back to the train station, which was great because it was HOT today.  Only 35C, apparently, but it felt like the hottest day yet.  I’m not sure if it was the humidity (only 50%!  Xiamen will be 90+%!!) or the fact that the pollution was pretty bad and I wore a mask all day, but I could not handle it.  

At the train station, one of the girls helped me get my train tickets.  I had bought three of them online, and had the confirmation numbers, so those were easy enough to get.  (Side note: I had a mild panic attack when, at the front of the line with the grumpy teller and a long line of people behind me, I thought all the information was in my Gmail account.  That’s like three layers of inaccessible, as I’d have to have internet, get on my VPN, and download PDFs.  Thankfully, I had put the numbers in Evernote.  But it was just one of those situations where I realize how smoothly my life runs in the US and how . . . different that all is in China.)

The fourth ticket was the one I bought at Tsinghua and then lost.  Unfortunately, they had no record of my ticket on the train number I had written down.  I vaguely remember him saying that that train was sold out and offering me another one, but I don’t really know which one.  We tried several others, all the fastest trains on that day (which better be what I bought!) but found nothing.  I’ll probably make a trip back to the place where I bought the ticket, then, worst-case scenario, buy it again.  It was 270元, or $45 – not nothing, but I’ve definitely made worse mistakes.

After being on the go all morning in the crazy heat, I was ready to go back to the hotel for the rest of the day.  I showered, cleaned up, took a nap, read The Three Body Problem, and kind of started packing.  I’m trying to figure out what I can/should bring on my two weeks of travels, and what should stay in Beijing.  Opening up my suitcases and going through my drawers, I got a look at the things I’d brought and never used.  The award for Most Worthless Thing I Lugged Across the Pacific definitely goes to the big box of business cards I’d been told were ‘essential’.  I think since I came to China, I’ve legimitately used one, and gave another two to labmates as basically a souvenir.  The award for Thing I Almost Left Behind That I’m Glad I Didn’t is a tie between my Time Capsule (oh, the glories of wireless internet in my hotel room, at least when we have internet in the hotel) and my 3D printed brain (best. show-and-tell. ever.).  All in all, I did a decent job packing.  

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