Xenophobia on the Shanghai underground

We expats have a strange relationship with the phenomenon of xenophobia. These occasional encounters of the red-neck kind are a two-edged sword for us bloggy types. They can be a morale-sapping reminder of inescapable ‘otherness’, whilst providing excellent grist for the expat mill, that sees us shaking our heads at the nonsensical society we have immigrated into.

A perverse bunch, we may look to this expat media mill to feed our self-esteem, and bring morale back to the baseline. Some insights as to why we do this may be provided by Richard Nisbetts’ intriguing book ‘The Geography Of Thought’, which describes how much more westerners are psychologically dependent on their individual sense of worth.

Whilst drinking fruit juice in the Shanghai underground, a white expat friend of mine recently found himself being told not to ‘mess the platform’, by an elderly Chinese lady, as “this is China, not your own country”. This rather impressive, and fearless (my friend is about 6 foot 6), display of public racism seems to justify Chinese people urinating and defecating in public places, and throwing litter on the floor whilst standing metres from a public rubbish bin, with the contention that it is acceptable to do this as long as you are Chinese. The ticking off was particularly aggressive as it was pre-emptive – my friend had not made a mess of any kind, except for his own personal appearance.

It is tempting for us ex-pats to bandy these stories around, and smile cynically at how xenophobic the Chinese are. Doubly so because of the flat out denial by many natives here that Chinese are in general really rather racist. I suspect very few expats are able to engage Chinese people in a dialogue about this (feel free to contradict me), and so we content ourselves with righteous blogs much like this one.

It is worth remembering, though, that expats have a definite tendency to take the action of an individual, and use it to demonstrate the validity of our own generalizations and racism. At least, I know I am prone to this. I was happily doing so, in my head, after hearing my tall friend’s story, when I recalled another obnoxious old woman – Mrs Steelwell.

When I was a young lad, growing up on a housing estate in Sussex, myself and 4 or 5 of the local kids would go and play in a small wooded area a few minutes walk from where we all lived in a leafy cul-de-sac. Mrs Steelwell lived on her own in a house abutting the area we called the Little Woods. I suppose the noise of a bunch of kids playing games outside her house may have grated on her nerves, and she seemed to have a fairly joyless existence, living on her own, occasionally visited by her daughter, who drove a Ford Fiesta.

On her bad days she would come into her front garden, and heap abuse on the only ‘not 100% white Anglo-Saxon’. My father being Moroccan, she would call me the ‘Macorcan Boy’, and tell me to go back to where I came from. Of course, I delighted in telling her I came from the cul-de-sac up the road. One time she attempted to throw a basin of dirty washing up water over me. The other kids were rarely the focus of her ire. Maybe I just have ‘one of those faces’, but I strongly suspect my non-whiteness was a deciding factor in my getting the brunt of the abuse.

The Chinese woman is like Mrs Steelwell. She has a bee in her bonnet, and someone is going to get abused. Mrs Steelwell was Irish and quite possibly racist. Fortunately, I didn’t use the incident to create a stereotype of Irish racism. I waited until my 20’s to do that. But I suppose the point is that we need to be aware of our own tendency as expats to be racist, and to take individual occurrences like this one as our justification. These experiences give us an insight into the personal reality of some individuals, but we should be wary of extrapolating this further. I reserve the right to ignore my own advice on this point, as will everybody else.