"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?
April 1, 2015, 12:57 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, racism, the expat life, TIC | Tags: , , ,

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine–a fellow former China expat–posted a video of a comedy sketch about being black in China and the bewildering ignorance that black people experience. I thought it was hilarious–because, sadly, it’s true. Racism does exist in China. Here’s the proof:

“When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?” AI YA WO DE MA YA!!!

All foreigners, regardless of race, should expect be asked some off the wall questions, ranging from the benign to the offensive. It’s understandable: a cocktail of a one-party system that limits free speech, a guarded Internet and travel restrictions has created a culture that really doesn’t understand the outside world. Even the language demonstrates China’s isolation: you may here Chinese people refer to China as guonei (within the country) and the rest of the world as guowai (outside the country), as well as to themselves as Zhongguoren (Chinese) and the rest of the world as waiguoren (foreigner). Yes, you could find a similar way to express these ideas in English (your country/abroad, your nationality/immigrants or foreigners or what have you), but these concepts are different when Chinese people speak. You will hear people say things like, “Chinese people are like this, but foreigners are like that”–as though the entire world is diametrically opposed to China in a massive monoculture. I do not say this as a criticism of China, a country that was previously very poor and more isolated than today, and does not have the same history of immigration and diversity as many other countries. 

And that historical void has been filled with the next best thing: Western media. Do you see where I’m going with this? There’s a certain demonization of black people in our media, and developing countries like China pick up on that. The difference is that while they hear things about black people being dangerous, homeless, unemployed and drug addicts, most of them have never met a single black person. I think my students–most of whom are Chinese, studying in San Francisco–are afraid of black people. They will casually say things that I think are racist, like, they see a fast driver on the street and say, “Oh, he’s black.” Meaning: that’s why he’s a reckless driver. That’s just one, tiny example; nevertheless, I find it disturbing. We have to contend with racism as a force so vicious, so pervasive, that it can spill onto foreign soil and grow.  Slavery has long been abolished, and yet the world is still reeling from its repercussions.

Well, regardless of how or why racism reared its ugly head in China, the fact is it’s very hurtful. I’d like to share with you all the first time I ever encountered racism in China. I’m white so I didn’t experience it first-hand; in fact, it was several months into my first year until I really noticed it.

It was Christmas Day, and I was sick as a dog with some kind of gastrointestinal infection. My friend and roommate was at work, but her boyfriend was around. One look at me and he knew I needed a doctor, and luckily, he happened to speak fluent Chinese (he was doing his M.A. in Dalian). So he took me to see a doctor.

On the walk to the hospital, I noticed that people often paused to look at us. OK, this was not unusual, we were foreigners after all, but it seemed like . . . more?  And less friendly? The stares I attracted were partnered with smiles; but these stares were quite unwelcome.

And then, once we’d arrived, I finally got it. We found a nurse and approached her to ask for directions for the proper facility.

As we approached, a look of cold fear took over her face.

This guy, my savior on that day, was black, from a small African country, and quite dark-skinned. The nurse was afraid for her life.

Honestly, if everywhere I went I had to deal with fear and contempt, I probably would have quit China long ago. I really don’t know how people do it. I suppose some people just don’t have a choice. You go where the money and opportunities are; that’s what we all have to do, it’s just easier for some of us.

After that experience, I tried to do a lesson on racism in my adult language class. But surprisingly, none of my students believed racism existed in China. They maintained (like in the video) that Chinese people are all the same race, therefore, there is no racism. And if no one believes in racism, how can they talk about it? How can they work through it? How can they begin to see it?

The video above was also posted onto the Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. Here below is a snapshot of what some Chinese people made of this video, which I’ve translated into English. Some of the opinions are harsh. But at least there’s some kind of platform for people to talk about racism. Is it too generous to believe that this is a start? Read below and decide for yourself.


It’s not that I discriminate against black people, but they do leave me with a bad impression. Black people contribute absolutely nothing to the progress of the civilized world, from ancient times to the not so distant European Industrial Revolution–nothing advantageous came from the work of black people. They completely enjoy the results of progress brought on by people of other races.


Why do black people continue to live in China? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Africa?


The truth is, Asian people think white is pretty…

还有中国1978年才开始慢慢发展到现的程度。国家很穷,教育也不好,旅游也不可能。 //@(username deleted): 因为中国封闭了几十年 让人坐井观天

And it wasn’t until 1978 that China slowly began to open its doors. China was poor, the education was bad and people couldn’t travel. / @(username deleted): This is because for so many decades China was sealed off. It makes people narrow-minded.


We understand, but that’s not to say that all Chinese people do. Although not all Chinese people are like the ones in this video, most are!


This video says something really profound about Chinese people’s ignorance!

For further reading, please check out A Minority in the Middle Kingdom: My Experience Being Black in China via Tea Leaf Nation.