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.


  1. In Taiwan where they actually consistently enforce rules, eating on the platforms or carriages is forbidden. I like this rule.

    Gotta love racist old timers eh?

  2. At the other end of the age range when in Xian this weekend me and a group of friends received a “Hey! F**K You!” with accompanying middle finger from a young boy hanging out a minivan window. Although it was(I assume) more meant in jest than anything. It certainly made us chuckle.

    I’ve yet to receive any real racist comments in China, in English anyway!

  3. I’ve had experiences like this, but only when in Shanghai, not Beijing of Guangdong. At the same time it’s also the only city where I’ve seen ‘white girls’ yell at a Chinese motorcycle ‘fuck off, this is for pedestrians only!’. General tolerance seems lower than elsewhere, but maybe that’s just my personal experience.

  4. Isin’t saying that “All Chinese are racists” a racist statement in and of itself?

    I mean, I’m not disagreeing with you, just pointing out the irony of it all.

    I have found here that I have been given a bit of a “White Pass” to do what I want, when I want, and to have it be completely accepted by the Chinese. When walking between apartment complexes, my Caucasian friends and I are often ignored, whereas any of my Asian or Latino friends are stopped and questioned as to where they are heading.

    This even includes people who are ethnically Chinese. It seems to me that the Chinese are more racist against their own people than they are against white people. Now, I have heard many stories like yours Jalal about people who are non-Caucasian, and I can only imagine what that entails, so thank you for sharing with us!

    • Yeah. Know what you mean John. Last time I went back to the UK, and took the bus from Heathrow airport to the city, I found it so surreal that as the passengers disembarked, they each thanked the bus driver. Have you seen the Star Trek Next Generation episodes with The Borg? We are being assimilated John. Resistence is futile……

      Actually, there is a lot to be said for adapting to your environment. I think it’s kind of necessary to a certain extent. I have met a couple of guys who couldn’t, and went into pysychological meltdown…. not pretty.

  5. foreign friends of the world unite!

    c’mon either this is a pretty worn topic or I’ve been here too long..

    just use the rule of 25%

    China has 25% of the worlds population, therefore:

    25% of the worlds idiots
    25% of the worlds pinheads
    25% of the worlds racists
    25% of the worlds smart people (gotta put something nice in )
    95% of the worlds “victim complexes”…….

  6. Glen. Yes, of course saying “all Chinese are racist” would be racist. I don’t think I said that, or implied it (sorry if I did!). As for the ‘white pass’ giving us foreign types priveleges, good point, but the way I see it that’s the same mindset that means you get charged 5 times what chinese people get charged buying certain goods, just a different manifestation. It’s all prejudice.
    John. I disagree that it is a worn topic. You may have been in China for a long time, and heard it all before, but that doesn’t mean everybody else has. For some people it’s still fresh and new and a little puzzling. Anyway, along with religion and politics racism is one of those timeless topics people can bang on about endlessly. Just doing my bit. You should hear me after a couple of beers…….

    Didn’t anybody out there think I was actually taking a shot at expats too?. 🙁

  7. @Jalal …you’re right I’ve been here too long, put it down to cross-cultural differences. I guess my challenge is that I’ve been here too long and have been “harmonized”. China’s like that , or living for one place for a long time does that to you.

    I get more shocks now when I go back to Canada: you should get a peak inside my head then :

    “hmm, why is this person holding the door open for me?”
    “hmm, odd there is 3 meters between the bank teller and the next person in line, means I can cut in”
    “damn, why are all the cars stopping, its just a red light with pedestrians, dont they know I’m in a hurry”

  8. I’ve always considered that the general (and I don’t mean this applies to every single Chinese person before someone calls me out) level of casual racism is really just really a lack of familiarity. That to me has always very closely paralleled the feeling I get from people from my parent’s (born pre WW-2) generation in the UK. But then I grew up in Sussex too so maybe that’s just a localised view.

    My parents and most of their friends always had a slightly negative view of non-white people which I don’t think was malicious or intentional and, if ever they were confronted by someone for the things that they’d have said they would always shrug it off with a simple “That’s not what I meant and you know it” although it clearly was what they meant.

    I doubt very much that many ‘racist’ Chinese mean any real malice – it’s just that we’re “over here” and we’re not the same, and didn’t come from here. It’s a bit of a challenge to the world view.

    The only times I’ve ever received any racial abuse has been in the US which is a far more scarily divided country than almost any other that I’ve been to.

    @Glen “White Pass”? Shouldn’t that be ‘carte blanche’?

  9. Hate to say it Jalal, but inbreeding is a universal trait with the human race – your Mrs. Steelweel, and my Wassim Chao – are merely the end products. But like all good safety mechanisms in nature, imbreeding leads to dead ends – so our children have a slimmer chance of dealing with their like in their time.

  10. Jesus titty fucking Christ. Only a stupid white trash goober would whine about this being racism. Try being chained to the back of a pick up and being dragged a couple of miles. The things you white mother fuckers have done to Blacks and Native Americans–yet you go to China and whine and cry if people stare at you. Jesus, man, you people are so fucking full of yourselves.

  11. I don’t recall having done anything to blacks or native Americans, or at least nothing they found disagreeable at the time. Perhaps I am suffering from some kind of amnesia. Must have banged my head that time I decided to try being chained to the back of a pick-up and dragged for a couple of miles, as an educational exercise, on the advice of someone much more in the know than me.

  12. Thanks Wang for re-schooling us on the fact that there are two countries in this world. China, and Foreign. Dumbass.

    Points for using JTFC though.

  13. Favorite Chinese racist moment. I asked a Chinese person feels about racism the reply was, i quote “there isn’t racism in china because there are no black people.”

  14. Nice article! Rings so true.

    @JLegendary – you are right, I’ve heard that one lots. What that point of view fails to comprehend is the difference between anecdotal and institutionalized racism. This goes for all the flavors of discrimination as well: agism, sexism, fatism, sex appeal, you name it.

    In China, it’s so commonplace that people are unaware of it. To a fish, the world is water, so?

    It’s not wrong to talk about Chinese racism. Why is it when we mention China, a racial identity pops into mind? Who made China a race-based country? Racism is a cultural phenomenon, not a genetic one, and only a racist would accuse otherwise. Racism as a social norm in China continues to demonstrate the almost insurmountable social challenges ahead for those who are unwilling to self-examine, or agitate for change, citing “racial mandate” as an excuse.

    We expats complain, but we stay longer. The PC wonks who come here for a year and chide us in defense of the “hard working, smart, innovative” locals (stereotype much?) often blow a gasket after a year or so and are soon having their go away parties, to live on blithely in their familiar surroundings, far away from the realities of China’s “development” issues. Who serves China better, the touristy PC wonk? Or the very vocal, very stubborn resident weed? The former offers today’s meal. The latter offers lasting, potentially transformative insights. To any smart enough, and secure enough, to heed.

    But China is old. The Chinese will tell you so. Many if not most have become accepting, complacent, forebearant; like elephants, have learned to be lead by a rope, because they were chained as infants.

    To any Chinese reading this, I would say, welcome the complaints of expats. Listen to them, learn from them. These are the rungs to social “development”. But if you prefer status quo, don’t bother us about being a global leader, because none of us are acting to make our home cultures more like Shanghai’s, with more institutionalized racism/discrimination and less rule of law or civility. Shanghai, as a collective society, has everything to learn and nothing to teach about civil behavior. Period.

    So does China want to develop? Or does it want to stay the same, same old same old?

    Is Chinese society collectively really that insecure about facing its own weaknesses? If so, then it’s not the complaints that are your problem.

    • “But China is old. The Chinese will tell you so. Many if not most have become accepting, complacent, forebearant; like elephants, have learned to be lead by a rope, because they were chained as infants.”

      The Country physically may be old, but for the most part, they hit the reset button culturally back in the 50’s. If we were surrounded by mini-孔子s, there wouldn’t be so much garbage and public urination. That Ancient China you harken back to remains in places like 西藏 , but not in the big cities. Here we long for those societal structures. There’s no respect for anything around here, and 孔子 would be ashamed of what China has become. Even the 故宫 has litter everywhere. What a joke.

      EG. If China is old, it needs to get older, and fast. If China is young, it should be younger and more modern. China is out of excuses.Just admit that it’s a poor country with extremely low education levels, and there will always be bigotry until that changes.

  15. As a Canadian, I’m just lucky I didn’t go to school here, and learn that ‘foreigners have magic powers, that’s why their eyes are colored’ etc. (heard that one from a 22 yr old colleague a couple years ago).

    Anecdotal expressions, like mine above, are terrible because those in question are otherwise very smart successful people. It’s not like you can say, “Oh, poor thing, she has Tourettes” or something. They really believe that shit. Getting stared at is not bad because ‘staring’ is illegal or immoral, it’s a bad thing because people came to Shanghai with such high expectations, and are so severely disappointed. The press on China overseas is so good, and we here in the Mainland know it’s all fucking BS.

    Is development a beautiful skyline? Of course not, from an Economic background, development is fertility rates, education and income. China has a long f-ing way to go, on all fronts, and when education (real education, not fucking multiple choice math tests) picks up, the racism will subside. It has to.

    I once pondered, as I waited for the crosswalk light to change, “When Chinese stop jaywalking, it will be a developed Country” Until then, expect ignorant moronic statements reminiscent of Mississipi in the 1960s.

  16. Hi Jalal,

    Hope you enjoy your stay in China. I have been staying in Manchester, UK(not the one in the US) for nearly 4 years and would like to share some thoughts with you.

    Regarding the racist issue, you may not be aware that the population in east China are almost unanimous Han Chinese. Majority of them have been living in a single ethinic environment since they were born. Many never ever talked to a foreigner in their life time.

    The lack of experience to live with people of a different ethnic origin results in them being insensitive to the political correctness of your country, i.e. no implications of racial issues of any kind.

    Although I witnessed the violent clash between England Defense League (EDL) and Muslim society in Manchester city centre, as well as watching the harsh debate about British National Party (BNP) on BBC Question Time, you people are generally used to living in a multi-racial society (I guess Manchester is more tolerant than Bristol though).

  17. I also discovered that it is common for passengers/customers to thank bus drivers/waiters/superstore cashiers in the UK.

    However, the fact that customers don’t thank these service providers in China is because:

    1) a distinguish in class: these basic manual labour job without the requirement of any degree or special skills are generally considered “inferior” in the society. My parents used to tell me “you have to study hard and have ambitions, otherwise you will downgrade yourself to street cleaners (an example of ‘inferior’ occupations) in future”
    They are regarded as a sign of failure by the public and they themselves often feel ashamed to admit to friends “I am a waiter/cleaner”. These basic manual labours are paid not much above the minimum wage, similar to that in the UK where waiters are paid slightly above £5.50/hour. But in the UK there seems to be less discrimination against these “low” jobs?

    2) A general notion is that as a customer, I am paying for your living. It is you that have to thank me, not the other way round.

    I did not comment whether it is right or wrong, but simply told you what the general notion is.

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲