The day I landed in China my first thought was; “My God everyone here is Chinese!” Everyone. Which is common sense, but still unexpected. Growing up in the Western world your country doesn’t really determine your ethnicity. Jamaicans, Americans or Latinos can be black, white, Asian or anything. This is very rarely the case in China. The people from the Northwest of China near the former Soviet countries usually have red hair and green eyes. They have Asian body frames and only speak Chinese, they don’t quite look European or Chinese they just look interesting. People in Hong Kong, come in all shapes and sizes and look like the Chinese people we are used to seeing in the west. The people of Macau have an exotic look because most of them are mixed with Portuguese, since it was a territory until about 5 years ago. However, mainland China doesn’t have much variation to Western eyes. Some people dye their hair blonde or red to set themselves apart. Blatant staring really used to upset me until I realized what it must be like to live in a country where everyone has the same common features as you do.
My first time in China I met my friend Melody while working at an English teaching company. During that time the Chinese staff would constantly mix up our names. I chocked it up to having similar sounding names. About a year later we were in a massage parlor and the girls massaging us were full of questions. Let me just say that China has been closed off to the world for most of its history, they have never really had to deal with foreigners before. Therefore, questions that would be incredibly rude in our countries are really just pure curiosity. She asked things like why foreigners are so fat, does the sun hurt our eyes because they are so big etc. We answered every question she had and had a lot of fun doing it. And then she asked a question that shocked both Melody and me. It was “How can you tell each other apart? You all have big eyes and noses and are tall.” She went on to tell us that she can only identify foreigners by skin color, all the white ones look the same and all the blacks and Indians look the same to her and most people in China. She was equally shocked when we told her that foreigners say the same thing about Chinese people. I wasn’t insulted, but it explained a lot. It explained why the guards in my building would ask me about “friends” whom I had no idea about. It explained why people were always bringing questions meant for Melody to me. It explains why Asian cartoons always have foreigners with really big eyes and pointy noses. It explained why every time I came back from Hong Kong the immigration officer would take forever looking back and forth at my passport picture and me. It explained why people were always asking if Melody and I were related, even though she has Filipino heritage, is about 6 shades lighter than me and clearly has a different ethnicity!
Fast forward a few months, I’d had an incident with a cab driver in which he threw my purse out his window, roughed up my security guard and then drove off. The guard insisted we make a report. We went to the police station, where I was questioned. Questioning was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. It began with, “What did he look like?” that was easy he was Chinese. And then it was “We know, but what did he look like?” and I said “Well…he..looked..like..umm..he was..um Chinese”. My friend Angela is Chinese-American, she is tall, with high cheekbones, full lips and black hair. She is about a size 10 and a little taller than I am. She wears hip-hop styled clothing and she has an asymmetric haircut. I don’t think all Chinese people look a like, but I had no way to describe him, except for “He..was..he..was..um…he was Chinese”. “Did he have big eyes ma’am?” Was he kidding? Is there a hidden camera in this room? And then “Did he have black hair? Was he short?” This had to have been a joke. I gave the officer a blank stare. How could he ask me those questions? Can’t I just look at pictures and choose? Next, “Was he Cantonese?” Cantonese are the people of Hong Kong and Guangdong where I live, it is said they look different from Han Chinese. I don’t agree. But he spoke clear and perfect mandarin, which by reasonable deduction could not have made him Cantonese because most of them speak mandarin just as horribly as I do. “No sir.” Yes! I got one right. They eventually brought in someone trained to deal with foreigners. I thought it would be a waste of my time and his because if they couldn’t help me, what made him so special that he could? He had an idea of “foreign mentality” so his questions were easier. “My eyes are big. Were his eyes like mine?” “No sir”. He understood that what we had a different perception of sizes and shapes. The smallest Western women are considered fat in mainland China. Anything other than very pale white skin is considered dark. He asked, “I have fair yellow skin, was his skin darker or lighter than mine” “He was darker sir.” And from there the questions got easier. I heard them asking in Chinese why I was willing to cooperate with him and not them. He was kind enough to tell them, I was traumatized by the incident and really did want to help. They never did find the guy but I if I saw him again I would definitely recognize him.
Living here has definitely given me an appreciation for diversity I never knew I had.
“Only those who risk going too far will ever know what they are capable of “