Imagine if, in The United States, there was a song that celebrated the American people as a race characterised by blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin. In China, a country described last year in The Atlantic as possibly the world’s most likeable superpower, something very similar happened.
The lyrics of “Descendants of the Dragon” – which started life as an eighties pop hit and was given a hip-hop makeover in the 2000s by Leehom Wang (pictured) – go some way toward explaining my early experiences in the People’s Republic.
At that time, I often caused people to stop and stare, sometimes even slow down their cars, as if I was the Eva Herzegova wonder-bra ad from the 1990s. The song’s implication that, since I don’t have black hair or yellow skin, I will never be Chinese was most manifest in a constant stream of catcalls.
Every time I stepped outside, they came from across the street, from upper-story balconies, and from passing motorcycles, the latter sounding like mosquitoes buzzing in the night. The catcalls usually consisted of one word: “hello”.
If anyone was responsible for this being considered socially acceptable, it was the education guru Li Yang. His Crazy English school taught millions of Chinese that the way to learn English was to shout it at the top of their voice and that every time they saw a “foreigner” they should view them as an “English opportunity”.
It would be melodramatic to call any of this “racist”. Many people had genuinely never seen a Caucasian before. Their country was closed off for much of the period when Europe went about originating such phenomena as eugenics, the African Slave Trade, and the Holocaust. It is understandable that they did not get the memo about racial sensitivity.
That is not to say there isn’t an ugly side to this behaviour. Lu Xun, who has been described in print as “China’s Orwell”, once said that Chinese have never looked at foreigners as equals. Foreigners are always either looked up to as emperors or looked down on as brutes.
I once had a Cameroonian boss. When we went out together, he would also have “hello” shouted at him but in his case, it was often followed by more sinister catcalls. In my English-teaching days, I once witnessed an immigration officer ordering my employer not to bring in any black teachers.
Jung Chang, author of “Wild Swans”, remembers playing army games as a child of the 1950s in which the bad guys would attach thorns to their nose to look like Caucasians and shout “hello” a lot to emphasize their otherness.
This mixture of xenophobia and xenophilia still colors how Chinese companies do business today. The preference for foreign brands is so pronounced that a 2010 op-ed in China Dailycalled on the public to stop worshipping them. The length to which Chinese companies go to copycat Western companies has resulted in such delightful brand names as Dolce & Banana, Pizza Huh, and King Burger.
The catcalls of “hello” were sometimes accompanied by shouts of “Laowai”, a word which in theory means “foreigner” but in practice is closer in meaning to the Spanish word “gringo”. There is a popular self-help book in China titled “Don’t Be Shy, Just Say Hi”. Its Chinese title translates directly as “How to Make Friends with Laowai”.
In the 2000s, a respected public intellectual wrote a viral essay urging Chinese women not to sleep with Laowai. There was no backlash against the essay.
Whether sucked up to or looked down on, Laowai always seem to be seen as innately different to Chinese. In fact, because it is legally impossible for a foreigner to become a Chinese citizen and culturally impossible to integrate into the society, this necessitates that they are treated differently. It is natural that foreigners in China will start to behave differently.
Treating foreigners as an “English opportunity” assumes that you know what a “foreigner” looks like. Many of the countries where English is the most spoken language, including The United States, South Africa and Australia, had racism woven into their early history. For this reason, today treating somebody differently because of their ethnicity is the ultimate cultural faux pas.
To successfully do business in other countries and with foreigners in their own country, Chinese businesses need to know this kind of thing.
Since 1989, China has gone through the best period in its 5000-year history in almost every way, from infant mortality and life expectancy to personal freedoms and prosperity. The number of Chinese companies in the Global Fortune 500 has increased 14 years in a row.
The treatment of all foreigners as outsiders is a relatively minor blotch, but one that appears unlikely to change and harms China’s ability to attract the best and brightest. They are not quite as bad as drive-by shootings, but it is difficult to feel at home when constantly subjected to drive-by hellos.