“Where are you from? What is your nationality?” are the regular questions I get asked by friendly passers-by (invariably Chinese) as I hasten through People’s Square park in downtown Shanghai, just off West Nanjing road.
I say “invariably Chinese” because there are easily one thousand Asians to one foreigner even in cosmopolitan Shanghai. When I travel on the subways there are seldom other foreigners even when the trains are packed. Actually, this is especially the case when they are packed, because that is at work rush hour and the tourists will not venture onto the subways at those times. That’s for us hardened Shanghaiese who know how to breathe and not get pick-pocketed in a massive, humming tin of the proverbial sardines.
Therefore (and we will get to the point of thoughtleader.co.za/rodmackenzie/2008/09/14/man-di-lah-carefully-explaning-to-the-chinese-in-shanghai-what-it-meant-to-grow-up-in-the-old-sa-part-four/
recent blogs like “Whites can be more racist than blacks” in a moment) Chinese people, especially in the People’s Square area of Shanghai, will often ask whites where they are from, because you can’t have been born and raised in China.
I used to stop and talk to them. But now I just want to take an anonymous stroll, enjoy the flowers and peace and marvel at the tiny, penny-size frogs hopping across the pebbled paths from frangipani to ginkgo in spring.
But I always get disturbed with questions from the (extremely hospitable) Chinese about where I come from, or get an offer to sit down in a tearoom and have a chat. Not meaning to be rude, I just want my space, my hour or so of silence in a massive, awesome but overpopulated city. I am not allowed to because I am white. I said white, not just another race.
Chinese tend not to like blacks -– I am talking at a grassroots level, not the tremendous, diplomatic ties occurring between China and South Africa at the “in-the-clouds” level. Chinese ignore Indians and do not believe, generally speaking, that they can speak English or their accent is too peculiar. A coloured is a black: maybe he uses skin-whitening cream, popular among many young Chinese women in China. In the shops you will find little advertising blurbs on packets of soap, skin conditioners and so forth boasting that the product will make your skin whiter.
Why are skin-whitening creams and other products so popular among the Chinese lasses? Well, it’s because the girls want to look white, comes the no-brainer. But there is a particular class context for the reasoning in China: Chinese with dark skins are of the lower working class. Those wonderful people are the real “commoners” and the “lumpen”, known as “the old one hundred names”, to translate the class designation from Mandarin.
One obvious sign that you are of the working class is that your skin is dark, with hints of – oh my god – black because you work in the fields or on the endless constructions sites that are constantly throwing up and pulling down buildings in Shanghai like yo-yos in ultra-slow motion.
I know of middle class Chinese who will not even talk to the lower class, the brown-skins. One young Chinese friend of mine, who dresses very smartly, even shivers and puts her delicate, whitened hands in her pockets to protect them when a brown-skin stops to ask us where she or he can get water, or to beg for money.
Many young Chinese women – I risk generalisation, I am just going by nearly four years of living here – would love to have a white man for a boyfriend and ultimately, joy of joys – a husband. This means a lot more money, prestige and hopefully a free ticket to America – and preferably America, a myth in their minds as the land of the free and the brave.
I am discriminated against. This is because I am a South African. I am again talking about being a South African here at the grass-roots level, not the diplomatic “in-the-clouds” level. This is because South Africans – or so the perception goes – cannot speak English properly because they come from Africa. If some schools or work agencies find out that I am a South African they will not give me work. The fact that I am a mother tongue speaker of English is completely beyond many Chinese.
“Why aren’t you black?” often comes the chorus when Chinese find out I am from South Africa. (And I will get to my point with regard to Ryland’s blogs soon: if you have not given up reading this blog yet that probably means you are tired of the Zuma-Mbeki-mad Bob “same-coprolite-different-day” aporia that goes through the South African media every day.)
Blacks are to some extent discriminated against in China, because the perception on the ground is that they too, cannot speak English properly, even if they were born and raised in America or England. When submitting your English teacher’s CV by email, you are requested to attach a photograph of yourself. This is because they want to make sure you do not look Indian, black or even Asian: those races do not get the parents or adult learners to buy the English courses. The all-important white face does. However, this is slowly changing.
Where does this leave us? Racism and other estranging isms like classism, elitism and bigotry are rampant, an oily rainbow stain (miserable pun deliberate) that will not wash out, I am sure is the resigned agreement. Ideas like admitting we are racists so “let’s talk” does not appear to get us anywhere either.
No, it does not have to be like that. We must not give up. The endless estrangements and acts of violence created by the isms referred to in the above paragraph will not change until we start to address the core problem: our minds. Ever since in our evolution we first started to develop sentience – like a match struck against flint – the human brain has increasingly become a parasite on its hosts. The primary host is the human being’s body and the secondary and more important, utterly disrespected host is our precious Gaea, the world we inhabit.
‘We think too much.’
“… those roses had the look of flowers that are looked at”, as TS Eliot profoundly observed. The roses cannot just be the wonderful emanations from Gaea’s bosom that they are. And the parasite, the human mind, is getting more powerful, more self-seeking or ego-seeking … definitely not better or wiser.
Oh, and to get to the subject of Ryland Fisher’s article on whites or blacks being more racist, well, I think I have responded to it. Or started to. Just look again at what I have written. If there is enough of a readership interest for what has been written here, there will be a sequel to this blog. Maybe even if there isn’t.