When Intangible Becomes Tangible: White Privilege in China

The metal detector inside the first Beijing club I visited seemed to be more for show than anything else. We all passed through seamlessly without even being patted down, until the security guards pulled one of us aside.

            We immediately protested, “He’s American too, let him through.”

            “Speak English to them,” they instructed him in Chinese.

           In that moment, I realized that I would have to walk into clubs holding my friend's hand, if he, a Taiwanese-American, wanted access to the same privileges that I had simply by 刷脸, having a white face.

            In America, white privilege is considered intangible. It's seamlessly embodied in everyday occurrences and thus often taken for granted: police officers will be on our side if we’re pulled over,  in beauty departments, a variety of brands and products will cater to our complexion and hair texture, on college campuses, the majority of students will look like us and come from similar backgrounds. The line “all men are created equal” was penned by white men, for white men, on white paper.

            No amount of acceptance and acknowledgement of my privilege in America could have prepared me for the amount of privilege I had, and admittedly, enjoyed in China. Club promoters, both in Shanghai and Beijing, actively recruited 外国人, foreigners, to populate their clubs in order to create a certain atmosphere. The unspoken rule was, the more foreigners there are in a club, the more popular the club is; thus, the more customers would come spend money there. The only thing foreigners had to do was show up to receive free admission and free-flowing alcohol. Every day, my WeChat, China’s social media/messaging platform of choice, would blow up with messages from promoters, announcing which clubs were offering deals for foreigners that night. I could have drunk for free Sunday to Sunday, every night.

                                                                            At a club in Shanghai with an amazing view of the 外滩, Bund

            A combination of Chinese and Western beauty standards have led to pale skin, stick-thin figures, lighter hair, big eyes, and double eyelids as the ideal for women. Especially in Shanghai, young European girls are brought in to model for advertisements and magazines-a business that has faced numerous backlash as of late, not to mention not accurately reflecting the consumer market.  It was almost impossible to find a lotion that wasn't "lighting" while advertisements featuring skinny, ghost-pale women beckoned people to buy their products and live up to this unrealistic expectation. Sound familiar, America? I had been told throughout my time in I would be stared at, but I was not expecting that countless people would come up and ask to take pictures with me or comment on the size of my, to me, normal-sized eyes. More often than not, people would just take pictures of me and my friends. Especially when my study abroad program traveled as a group we felt like the tourist attraction, rather than the historical site we were visiting. When we asked our 老师, professors, why people were constantly taking random pictures of us, they explained that it was almost a status thing to show their friends and family that they had been in a place with a lot of foreigners.

                                                 A group photo during our trip to Shanghai.

            I use the term foreigner with great hesitation, because many of these privileges only applied if you “looked foreign." My Asian-American friends did not have the same “China experience” as I or my other “foreign-looking” friends did. They were often assumed to be our translators; thus, they were always the first ones people talked to when addressing us, and as mentioned before, they had to be talked into clubs. Furthermore, they were not given the same encouragement and praise as we were when they spoke Chinese with natives. It was automatically assumed that they should and would speak Mandarin. On the flip side, it was easier for them to get taxis and to bargain with salesmen. I often asked my “clubbing boyfriend” to help me bargain, because I alone would be quoted a ridiculous price.

            My Asian-American boss during my internship, a kick-ass woman I greatly admire, often spoke on the challenges of looking Asian but being American. After she had completed the two-year language training that her position requires, her own instructor told her that when she got to China, she should only speak English. She questioned why since she had spent two years learning Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages in the world, and obviously wanted to keep it up. Her instructor explained that because her accent wasn't native, especially in the big cities, people would automatically assume she was an immigrant into the city and thus, lower class. For instance, while I was there, she was dining in a restaurant with a white employee and received awful service from the 服务员, the waiter while her dining companion was excellently catered to by the staff. Nonetheless, she, being the boss lady that she is, conducts almost all of her work duties in Chinese. 

            To be foreign-looking in China has its advantages, but it is very clear that to be Caucasian is the absolute ideal. China still has a long way to go in its treatment of other foreign-looking individuals, especially African and African-American people. Social platforms, like WeChat, automatically translate offending phrases form Chinese into English and museums often feature racist exhibits. Therefore, while Caucasians are met with great admiration, other foreigners may not be received quite as warmly. 

            Nonetheless, I truly enjoyed my five months in China. I love the people, the culture, and have finally learned to love the language. I hope my career brings me back to work there one day, but as with all nations, including our own, it has its flaws. Although I will not have physical proof of my privilege with a free drink in my hand, like I did in China, as I go back to school in Denver I am more determined to use my privilege for the benefit of others.