Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Sticks and stones: I’m learning from personal discrimination

“So nigga-boy, what you doing in China?” said the taxi driver to me, a smile on his face.

“I am teaching,” I muttered.

“What do you teach, nigga-boy?”

“English.”

“English??” His smile turned into a big grin. “You mean you can speak English – nigga-boy?”

“Yes I can,” I retorted, fixing a smile on my face while gritting my teeth. “I am a mother-tongue speaker of English, thank you very much.”

“I thought it was Swahili,” the taxi driver said, wheezing with laughter. He had a naughty twinkle in his black eyes which reminded me of the impish sparkle and toothy grin of one of my favourite actors, Samuel L Jackson.

“So which country do you come from, nigga-boy?”

“England.”

“England?!?” “Good God, but I thought all English people were white, hey … nigga-boy?”

That was the substance of the conversation I have had with more than one taxi driver here in China, especially in Shanghai (the taxi drivers where I live in Suzhou are definitely less discriminatory). The only difference is that the taxi driver would sometimes call me the pejorative laowai, not the N word or the K word. To us ex-pats in China the Chinese word is just as bad as, say, the N word. Laowai is a term all foreigners get called here in China. Sure, he wasn’t aware that he was being insulting. I think. The taxi driver’s surprise was that I actually came from South Africa and surely all South Africans are hairen (black people) and definitely cannot speak English … so … since when does a white person come from South Africa, hey honky, coon, whitey, nigga-boy, hoon, whatever? Being called a laowai is the same as those other discriminatory labels.

I will go to a bank to open an account. The bank receptionist will escort me to the appropriate booth and tell the bank clerk, “This laowai wants to open a bank account. Not “this customer”. Not “this gentleman”. No sirree. It’s “this laowai”, not a valued customer. Grinning, I will gently but firmly correct the bank receptionist and tell her I can be referred to as xian sheng or kehu, the Mandarin terms for mister and customer respectively. She may blush slightly, and will often apologise. I used to get indignant with this discriminatory behaviour, but have learned to shrug my shoulders.

Even the children at the schools I teach at will call me laowai. “Laowai, laowai!” they all shout, pointing fingers at me. A foreigner is a rare sight out here in this village on the outskirts of Suzhou, called Che Feng (literally meaning “car place”; not many names for places in China are exactly poetic). I correct them, telling them they can call me laoshi, teacher. Just like all the other laoshi in the school. Definitely not laowai.

Lao, 老, in laowai, means old, and according to dictionaries it is a term of affection. In English, of course, we use the word “old” the same way. “Remember old Mike and his jokes …” Wai, 外, more or less means outside or outsider. So we are “old outsiders”, 老外. Laoshi, teacher, has the same character for lao, and shi means master. So teachers are old masters. However, we foreigners do not find laowai an affectionate or respectful term. It is blatant discrimination. It’s a bit like asking people to be happy with the term “nigger” because there is a sweet children used to like (before the name was changed), niggerballs.

In New Zealand I was absolutely amazed to hear Chinese people constantly referring to kiwis as laowai, foreigners, in their own country! The bloody cheek. I am told the same occurs in England. I absolutely loved sitting there, savouring the moment while Chinese referred to kiwis IN New Zealand as laowai and then – such bliss – I politely corrected them. The sudden silence and muttered apologies afterwards was most gratifying. If it was in a restaurant they might even awkwardly move to another table.

I am actually glad I could speak very little Chinese in my first year here in China. I would have been most indignant with all the verbal discrimination. (Another term that is used – this time genuinely with contempt for foreigners is gwailao, meaning “old ghost” literally and used to suggest “foreign devil”. The term gwailao has a long history and refers to the ghostly nature of white people’s skins and their round, bulging eyes with all the strange colours, shades of blue, green and grey, which may be the colour of a rotting corpse’s eyes.) As it is we battled to put up with the endless queue-hopping, the continual hawking and spitting in streets, or taxi drivers desperately trying to caress – what is to them – my very hairy arms (Han Chinese have little or no body hair and I look like a fur coat by comparison). In those days I also had a large boep and in Hangzhou strangers loved to walk over and pat my stomach. Apparently they thought I looked like a Buddha and stroking my belly was meant to be good luck.

Ooohhh, I would be most peeved, yank their hands away and roar with rage. Oh, sigh, such rage. Such self-importance and a poor body image. Okay now I am almost slim and don’t get the boep-patting routine. My butt gets a swipe now and then, especially from children. Chinese mostly don’t have bums. I still have the standard, Western, cute roundness, perhaps like the ovals of rugby balls, not that flat, insipid area from spine to upper thigh. I firmly tell the kids in Mandarin, “Don’t touch my bum!” and they sort of get the message. Man, in some respects Chinese children need to learn a lot about boundaries. Let’s not go into the toilet anecdotes, where the latrines (squats, no thrones) have half doors and kids peer over the top or bottom to see what you are up to, giggling away. We foreign teachers have learned a long time ago to only go to the loos during class time, not breaks.

But none of the touching, queue-hopping and so forth bothers me much any more. I very rarely lose it now. Sure it’s something you just get used to. I detest discrimination. But I also see myself now as not so important and don’t have those temper tantrums when discriminated against. I still jokingly correct every Chinese person who calls me laowai, knowing I might as well be farting against the thunder. Every day just about I am discriminated against, and just shrug my shoulders, saying “suan le” which is a Chinese term for letting it go.

The sound of suan reminds me of swan, effortlessly gliding on the lake of life with dignity, the hint of a smile on his face.

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