A friend of mine came across a short essay by Andrew Sullivan called The Racism in China, and suggested that it might be an appropriate topic for me to write about. Since racism has been lurking in the background of many of my posts, I guess I should take the bait and discuss it more directly. I was going to start off this new USA vs. HK series with something a little easier, like health care or the environment, but I’ve haven’t been stirring up as much controversy as I’d like anyway, so here goes…
Much of what Sullivan says is consistent with my experiences both in mainland China and in HK. Chinese feelings toward Westerners are definitely complex; there is a mixture of respect and disdain. I’m considered somewhat barbarous and uncultured (and rightly so). But I’m also seen as clever and knowledgeable (often undeservedly). The complexity of the term gweilo is an illustration of this ambivalence. Gweilo is not a racial slur in the sense that an American would think of one, nor is it a purely positive or even purely neutral term. Like most things in HK, the meaning of the term gweilo depends on context.
But in general, being a gweilo in HK is hardly something to complain about. There are advantages with women, and there are the corresponding disadvantages with men (mostly just a few nasty looks on the trains so far).
Sullivan also mentions that Chinese feelings toward non-white and non-Asian minorities (“blacks, browns and reds”) are considerably less complex. Here, Chinese racism approximates white American racism; racist Chinese people see themselves as racially and culturally superior to dark skinned people.
But Sullivan seems to be drawing a distinction between the uniformly tolerant Americans and the uniformly intolerant Chinese. Here, he completely misrepresents reality. There is racism and ethnocentrism in both the US and China. The difference is a matter of degree. And particularly in HK, which has attitudes the mainland is likely progressing towards, most educated young people are not racist. Do they stereotype? Of course, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t. I don’t see a lot of racial hatred here, and I don’t see (open) expression of racial superiority. It’s pretty similar to the US in these respects. In fact, I see much less than I saw in Alabama before I left (the ride from Birmingham to Atlanta on the airport shuttle was quite educational, to say the least). But I can’t understand conversations between two Chinese people, and my minority status doesn’t make me privy to the kinds of conversations I heard as a white person in a group of white people in Alabama. So like all my observations here, these are biased by what I can understand.
Still, there are differences that I can detect. Having worked in the same industry in both the US and HK, things are definitely different here when it comes to race. In Boulder, if a parent actually requested a white teacher, we would absolutely refuse to accommodate such a request. And everyone knows that, so even if some Boulder mom really was that racist, she would no better than to ask. In HK, we get this request fairly often, and though my co-workers think it’s ridiculous, racist, and unreasonable, and they push against it to a certain extent, in the end they generally find the mom her white faced tutor. My predecessor was Indian, and he experienced several incidents of racism: people assumed he wasn’t qualified to teach classes that required native English ability because he didn’t “look” like he was a native speaker, and some students just made up excuses not to work with him. But generally it’s the older generation that holds these beliefs. The cops in HK, like the cops in the US, have their favorite ethnic groups to target: here it’s mostly South Asians they mess with.
But when speaking of the US, Sullivan forgets his own history, and present. It wasn’t that long ago that the US had all the problems he currently ascribes to China. And though the US is far from perfect when it comes to race relations, we’ve come a long way. We aren’t the only ones capable of such progress. Sullivan assumes that Chinese racism is a fixed characteristic of their culture. He writes, “It is thus hard to imagine China welcoming millions of hard-working Nigerians and Bangladeshis with open arms. This could change over the next couple of decades as China’s labor shortage grows acute. I wouldn’t bet on it.” Why not? It’s been changing in most parts of the world, why not in China? (As for his prediction that China will have an “acute” labor shortage in the near future…I wouldn’t bet on it. But I’ll save my discussion of technological unemployment for another day.) And what planet does this guy live on? Is he under the impression that Americans are all welcoming hard-working Mexicans with open arms? Has he seen Fox News?
I love my country. Now more than ever. I’m proud that people of different backgrounds can live, love and learn together in the US. I’m proud that my identity as an American is broader and more inclusive than just my ethnicity or race. But like the Chinese, not all Americans are so cosmopolitan in their love of country.
HK is in between China’s past and China’s future. As the planet becomes more globalized, and people move around more and more, egocentricity will continually decline. I’d say the Chinese are moving in this direction at least as fast as the Europeans. This idea of “the West” being ahead of “the East” seems particularly misguided, given Europe’s recent troubles with immigrants. Hopefully, China, HK, the US and the world continue on this track.
So I addressed the issue, and I tried to do so evenhandedly, from limited information. I encourage comments and debate, particularly from anyone who has seen these issues from a perspective different than my own.
This is also the first in what I intend to make a regular series on my blog: USA vs. HK, so I have to decide on a winner. The winner in the “who’s less ethnocentric” contest, as Andrew Sullivan framed it, is the USA. Not a big surprise, but it’s a lot closer than Sullivan implies. And it’s a matter of degree, and neither society is static or homogenous when it comes this stuff. But if I have to choose a winner, I choose the USA on this one. Parts of the US would surely lose to HK, but to be fair, I’m comparing HK to the places I’ve lived in the US (places like Madison, Denver, Boulder, and Minneapolis, not Louisiana and Mississippi). That will be my comparison throughout this series. I think it’s a reasonable comparison; after all, HK doesn’t represent mainland China any more than Madison and Denver represent the US.
The main reason for the US victory here is the intolerance of racism by non-racists. Both countries have laws officially outlawing racial discrimination of any kind. The difference is that the US (at least my parts of the US) has a cultural norm that reinforces the law against discrimination, and this completely changes the whole equation. That is one area where I see a qualitative difference. By being more intolerant, the US wins the battle of tolerance.