Racial discrimination in China. For being Chinese.
You’re at the entrance of a nightclub with your friends. You’re all excited to get in, anxious to party. Your friends (who are Caucasian) get waved in one by one by security and staff. No bother. But as soon as the doorman (who is Chinese) sees you he holds you back, demanding that you pay a fee while those in front of you and behind you walk in for free. Why? Because you have a Chinese face.
It sounds racist and it is. If it were to happen in the UK, in London, for example, it would be sensational, causing headlines and outrage.
And yet it happens on a routine basis in Beijing, the capital of China. Chinese people discriminating against other Chinese people. The situation I describe has happened to me before. In fact it happened to me, again, just last night.
As a Briton of Chinese descent I have experienced racial discrimination far more often and more visibly in China than I have ever done in the UK. I am a foreigner in China, with British nationality, but I was born in China. And when you are discriminated against for having a Chinese face in China, the country of your birth, it can be quite confusing and upsetting.
It’s quite common to see, in clubs in big Chinese cities, in the middle of the dance floor, a group of white foreigners dancing. They are often Russians hired and paid for by the club. It’s understood that having foreigners there is a good thing, to help persuade wealthy Chinese clientele that the club is prestigious (because it has foreigners) so the club can charge high prices for tables where the clientele can be seen by others.
It’s common knowledge among expats and I’ve written before about this aspect for the Daily Telegraph.
As a foreigner in China you’re liable to benefit from your foreign status. Many come to China to take advantage of this. It can be seen in the extraordinary and quite common phenomenon of Italian, French, Russian, and other non-English speaking nationalities working in English schools in China, teaching English, and often receiving far higher salaries than their Chinese counterparts simply because they have a “white” face.
I remember emailing an English school in Beijing about a job opportunity. I mentioned my previous teaching experience and the fact I am a writer, and of course I included my name in the email. And the school’s one sentence response to me was: “Are you having a Asian face?” [sic]
The absurdity of an English school where they do not care at all about your teaching skills or experience but only whether you have a “white face” is an absurdity that is common in China. The schools do it because they can charge a premium for having foreign faces while the parents usually buy into the concept that a foreign face equals better education and prestige.
On a national level China has a huge inferiority complex when it comes to its relations with the West. The Chinese government distrusts and hates the West while, at the same time, jealously admiring its achievements and covetously seeking its admiration and acclaim.
Hence the strange prestige accorded to foreigners in China, on a social and professional level.
Ultimately I too enjoy benefits from being foreign in China. Part of this is simple economics, the laws of supply and demand. Native English speakers living in China are relatively few even now. I utilize that, as well as my writing experience, for a job I have with a PR firm copy-writing for a shopping mall.
I remember once having an argument with a friend of mine who disliked being discriminated against for being foreign (being cheated sometimes by taxi drivers, being stared at, and sometimes charged higher prices in smaller towns and cities). But these downsides pale in comparison to the overwhelming benefits she got from living in China, such as her salary and career opportunities (not to mention the freedom she had compared to locals).
My foreign friends would never consider speaking up about this unfairness, especially at the entrance of a club. And I am culpable also. There have been many instances where I’ve entered a nightclub for free, with my foreign friends, enjoying free drinks. And it’s an edifying experience because you realize that those in privileged positions have no impetus to raise awareness of this inequality, this unfairness, because it would undermine that very privilege. It’s a lesson I cannot forget.
Being made aware of White Privilege — in China, of all places — is a strangely affecting experience. Not least because it’s so brutally clear as having a person physically place an arm in front of you while your white friends are waved in without restriction. After it happened one of our group kindly offered to help by paying for me. I said no but he insisted. And we all went into the club when really we should all have left. But it was a Saturday night, and who am I to speak up about this?