China in 5 Words: Hello (哈罗)

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.

Review of “The Handsome Monk” by Tsering Döndrup

My review of “The Handsome Monk” by Tsering Döndrup, translated from the Tibetan by Christopher Peacock, has been published by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. 

You can read the whole thing here

The author is something of a specialist in conjuring up vivid scenes using bodily fluids. “Piss and Pride” is a rather suspenseful story, centring on a retiree who must test his bladder control to the maximum to uphold the dignity of his people. In “Notes of a Volunteer AIDS Worker”, the narrator graphically details how he contracted the disease and what it is doing to his body.

In “Ralo”, the titular character is known for the prodigious amount of snot that he produces. Initially published in the early nineties, this story was later extended to novella length. It is not one of the tighter pieces but contains some very astute satire about how Western tourists see Tibet as “the last unspoilt holy land on Earth”.

The collection is at its strongest when characters are grappling with the moral implications of their own behaviour. Many of these involve the Tibetan people being dominated by the Han and succumbing to the kind of anguished compromises required to survive.

One of the most extraordinary of the stories is “A Show to Delight the Masses”, which carries on the Tibetan tradition of mixing prose and poetry in summing up the life of corrupt official Lozang Gyatso. Much of the narrative unfolds in a sort of celestial rap battle to decide whether the main character is a good person. Since his sins have included urinating in a monk’s mouth, the answer is somewhat self-evident, but the story is no less gripping for it.

Beyond the Wings: February 2019

This is the first edition of my personal email newsletter, which will be something like the individual equivalent of a corporate newsletter.

The title comes from a stanza in “The Insomniacs” by Adrienne Rich.

My voice commands the formal stage;

A jungle thrives beyond the wings—

All formless and benighted things

That rhetoric cannot assuage.

I find that most of my work, including essays, fiction and music, focuses on outsiders, weirdos, and goofballs. That is, people and things that exist ‘beyond the wings’ as opposed to centre-stage.


This month I have mostly kept busy with the final semester of my MBA, plus exercise and Spanish classes, but I made a new music video. It is a love song and basically an attempt at transcribing “Song for Tom” by Fascinating Aïda into Chinese.

Fascinating Aïda are one of the best musical comedy troupes around, and they also have a lot of good serious songs, including “Old Home” and “Little Shadows”.


This month I attended three excellent activities involving Chinese writing. The first was a talk on women in Chinese literature by Zhang Lijia, author of the excellent “Lotus”, which is set at the turn of the millennium and about a Chinese prostitute who uses her earnings to support her brother’s education while trying not to get caught.

The second was a Surrealism in Fiction workshop by award-winning millennial writer Yan Ge, author of the novella “White Horse” and the novel “The Chilli Bean Paste Clan”. The third was a literary translation workshop with Helen Wang. In the middle of all this, I was accepted onto The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing and am already working on my first book review for them.

The Wider World

The word racist has been used a lot this month. Michael Cohen accused Donald Trump of being a racist, but his testimony is unlikely to damage the president’s chances of being re-elected, at least not in-and-of itself.

Jussie Smollett is alleged to have paid two people to stage a racist attack on him. This seems silly because Liam Neeson may have done it for free. As Bill Burr pointed out, it’s a bit like those times when you lied to parents or teachers as a kid and the whole thing got wildly out of hand.

Speaking of race and speaking of showbiz, the Oscars were held in February. The list of winners appears to have partly redressed the lack of diversity and representation of the “Oscars-so-white” controversy of recent years.

I saw most of the contenders. “Green Book” was well-acted and watchable but undeserving. However, as Bill Maher correctly observed, director Peter Farrelly, whose credits include “There’s Something about Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber”, should have got a special Oscar just for growing up.

My MBA thesis will talk about the issue of diversity in the publishing industry. I closely followed the dispute on this subject between Lionel Shriver and Penguin Publishing last year. I am way too much of an on-the-fence wimp to publicly weigh in on the debate, but hopefully the thesis will add something of value to the conversation.


I have recently been working on a novella about a cyberbully who makes a woman’s life a misery. I developed a fascination with this issue when I encountered a sick libeller who went by the online username of iWolf.

I later found out his real name is Randal Foley. He has long refused to explain himself or engage me while communicating under his own name, so my only option is to be the bigger person, and make this video

Short Story: The 27 Club

My short story “The 27 Club” has been published at Fiction on the Web.

“They say there are two types of lyricist, those who write while overlooking a phosphorescent ocean, and those who write while staring at a blank wall. I always saw myself as one of the former, but that night, as I crouched over the windowsill scribbling in the notepad where I wrote all of my completed lyrics, the neon Shenzhen skyline refused to shine behind the evening shower…” You can read the rest here.