I’m a ghost.  A white ghost, to be specific.  Like most ghosts, I didn’t choose this existence.  It just happened; as soon as I stepped off the plane in Hong Kong airport, I became a ghost.  Not that I mind really.  And it’s not that I didn’t know that my behavior carried some risk of turning me into a ghost…I had heard the term “gweilo” before, mostly on the internet…so when I stepped on that plane in San Francisco, I sorta knew I might become a ghost when I reached the other side of the Pacific.  The nice thing is, I can become human again, if I want to.  It’s just that it costs around $600, and involves about 12 hours of exposure to H1N1, and various other influenzas.

“Gweilo” (鬼佬) in Cantonese, means “ghost man” or “ghost dude,” literally.  Less literally, the word means “white ghost,” “foreigner,” “westerner,” “white man” or “non-Chinese man.”   There’s no way around it, I’m a gweilo.  The term really is surprisingly apt.  Like other ghosts, most people cannot see me.  This is why Chinese people are constantly stopping in front of me while I’m walking down the sidewalk as if I’m not there, walking directly at me and expecting me to get out of the way, closing elevator doors in my face, and not apologizing when they bump into me.  My invisibility, I presume, is also why they never make eye contact with me on the street.  I was at Starbucks the other day, standing right in front of the counter.  There was a Chinese woman waiting behind me in line.  The guy at the counter looked directly at her, and took her order.  Once she was done, he acknowledged my existence.  My face was directly in front of his face throughout this process, though our eyes only met once the Chinese woman had been served.

Ghosts come in lots of different colors, not just white.  For example, Nigerians (or other black people) are referred to as “hakgwei” or “black ghost.”  Just like real ghosts, ghosts in Hong Kong can see each other, even when most “people” can’t see us.  So when I walk down the street in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Indian hustlers can see me.  In fact, they see me coming a mile away, “Hello!  Buy a copy watch?”  “Hey buddy, I tailor suit for you, just come into my shop, have a look.”  Chinese people can’t see me, but I’m constantly making eye contact with other ghosts from all over the world.  Excessive eye contact.  And when I accidentally run into a Nigerian, Indian, or European on the street, we say “excuse me” or “sorry” or something like that.  Because we are both ghosts, we can see each other.  Not surprisingly, dogs can see me too, and they pay a lot of attention to me.  I think ghosts must smell different.

At work, it’s a different story.  There I have a title, and a multinational corporation that vouches for my existence.  As a result, people can see me.

I’m not really complaining about all this, just observing.  As a white man who grew up in the United States, I have no business complaining about racism.  I’ve benefited from it my whole life.  Not intentionally, and often I’ve just benefited from the effects of past racism, but I’ve definitely been the beneficiary, not the victim.  Words like “honky” or “cracker” have always seemed more amusing than offensive to me.  But racism feels different when you’re not the dominant ethnic group, and I’m getting a chance to experience that here.  It could be worse, black ghosts are treated with even less respect than white ghosts.  The moral order in Hong Kong: (Chinese) people, white ghosts, all other ghosts, animals, plants (in that order).  I’m not sure what the relative distances between  the points on that scale are….but I’m starting to figure it out.



10 responses to “Gweilo

  1. Great Stuff Casper. I say that b/c you are a friendly ghost 🙂 I’m glad you are writing this. I am looking forward to your next one and the one after that and so on. The Monk is doing well and I’m sure sends her best regards. Until next time . . .

  2. W, may i suggest a Mao t-shirt?

  3. Good stuff W.
    Interested to hear more…what are you doing in Hong Kong, and how long are you going to be there? You’ve clearly made a connection with how other minority groups feel in similar situations. I would be interested to hear your theories on why the Chinese people feel this way towards foreigners? Is it the result of political propaganda? Or just some national sense of superiority? Clearly there are individuals within the community that see foreigners as equals. Maybe that attitude is just societal law….

  4. Hey W,

    This is not meant to be critical, just playing devil’s advocate. How do you know that this treatment isn’t unique to foreigners? How do you know that Chinese people don’t treat other Chinese people the same way? In other words, that this behavior is not a function of you, but of their culture?

    I only ask this, because I’ve had the similar experiences with Chinese people, here in San Francisco, on China Air traveling to Asia, and in my time in Hong Kong as well. And I’m Asian, half Chinese half Korean.

    My impression is that unless you are in their company, Chinese people are completely oblivious to everyone around them. It can definitely be interpreted as being rude and inconsiderate, but maybe that’s just how they are. I don’t hate them for it, but I definitely don’t like being around it. Flying on China Air has to be one of the worst experiences of my life.

    Enjoy life in Asia!

    • Joe,

      My impression is that it’s both. Clearly there are cultural differences, and some of the obliviousness to others is simply a function of population density. But the experience I had at Starbucks was something else. There were three main differences between me and the woman behind me in line (gender, race and language). I don’t think our differential treatment was due to gender (she was at least 20 years older than the guy behind the counter, so I doubt he served her first because he thought she was cute or something like that). Race and language are the other two possibilities, and it’s pretty hard to separate them in this case.

      So yes, I think a lot of what you say is true. Chinese people are just like that to a certain extent, and they do treat each other “inconsiderately,” and in that way my treatment isn’t necessarily due to racism. But if you are implying that Chinese people aren’t really racist, I have to disagree. I think all countries are somewhat racist, and I certainly don’t think China is the sole exception. The gweilo post was really about my experience being a racial minority for the first time in my life, something that you, as an Asian American, are much more used to than I.

      But I welcome your comments, and am happy to have your perspective on my blog. Certainly it’s good to hear from an Asian American on these issues.


  5. you’re half korean joe? i didn’t know that. if you don’t mind me asking, if you’re half ko and half chinese, where does your last name come from?

  6. good stuff man.. our exchange made me actually take the time to read this post of yours, and i am better learned and well impressed with your writing. i hope that when you are less illiterate you will be able to at least be acknowledged when you speak from behind your ghostly face.

  7. Pingback: Yellow Fever « Reverse Immigration

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