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 it’s harder to see because I can 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.

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