Sylvia Yu Chao: Global View: China

Foreign ghosts

June 30, 2005

African kids with their Thai friend

On one of China's popular websites called, hundreds of messages were pouring in around the time of Condoleezza Rice's visit to China this past spring. The comments were very disturbing for a couple of reasons. People lashed out angrily at the U.S. secretary of state's ethnicity, her looks, her gender.

They wrote that she was (and this is hard for me to repeat): "a black devil," "a black pig," "a black whore" and "a black female dog." They said: "You're not even as good as a black devil, a real waste of a life," "Her brain is blacker than her skin," "The ugliest woman in the world" and "She looks like an orangutan, and talks rubbish; send us a beautiful woman next time."

The website is particularly popular among the urban elite and educated masses, and I remember reading these shocking words at the time. According to media reports, these comments were also gathered by Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was so disgusted by the awful remarks he felt compelled to write something about it.

He said in a media interview that racism and sexism are so widespread on the mainland that no one was especially surprised by the hateful verbal attacks on Rice.

But not everyone was oblivious to the insults. One Chinese chat room writer, who goes by the name of "ymc" was outraged:

"Reading Liu Xiaobo's analysis of major Chinese Internet BBS [bulletin board] forums in the immediate aftermath of Secretary Rice's visit to China last week, I, as a person of Chinese descent, felt thoroughly disgusted and deeply ashamed by the outburst of the ugliest possible racial slurs launched by the Chinese masses against black Americans in general and Secretary Rice in particular.

"It's all because she urged China, in the mildest possible form, to be more democratic, and to be cool on sabre-rattling at Taiwan."

When I asked my Chinese teacher and several friends what they think of black people, almost all of them say the same thing, "They're scary, they smell, they're loud ... they're different from us."

My teacher Li Juan is a 20-something educated woman with a generous spirit. She's the kind that can't hurt a fly. But when I press her to tell me what she really thinks of Africans, she shakes her head in mild disgust and says she's afraid of them.

One Chinese journalist told me that she believes black men have an abnormally high sex drive. Her friends believe that one can get AIDS from sleeping with black men.

Jean-Marc Agnero

It seems pretty difficult for a black person to live in China. My friend’s African friends know it could take a long time to get home from a social outing. That’s because many taxis speed up, instead of slowing down whenever they see black people.

That happens regularly to Jean-Marc Agnero, a Beijing resident from the Ivory Coast. "If I'm standing by a white person, a taxi driver will pass me by and stop in front of the white guy," he says.

I asked a middle aged Chinese driver about this and he explained, "Black people are poor and the men are usually really big and intimidating looking. So that's why taxi drivers don't like to pick them up. Sometimes they don't pay."

Agnero is an articulate and thoughtful 20-year-old, fluent in English and French. The son of two diplomats has been living in Beijing for the last 7 years and feels bothered that the Chinese are becoming more openly racist towards blacks. "When I first got here the Chinese were impressed to see black people. We're new to them," he says, "they used to touch my hair and skin. Some of them touched my skin to check if it was dirty."

Agnero has also been charged almost double what his Caucasian friends pay for entry fees to clubs. "We have a responsibility in this," he says. "Sometimes I hear black people fight on the streets and everywhere. Some black people have bad attitudes, but we are not all the same. It's going to take a long time for the Chinese people's attitudes to change."

Canadians Sally and Alvin (not their real names) can vouch for the difficulties, and subtle and sometimes not so subtle discrimination. The married couple have lived in different parts of China working as English teachers.

Not too long ago, they were applying for teaching jobs in a smaller city when the person in charge of hiring offered Sally a job, but she profusely apologized and said she couldn't hire Alvin even though she wanted to. The reason? Sally is Caucasian, and her husband is from the Dominican Republic.

The parents would pull their kids out of class because they don't want a black teacher, the woman said. In the smaller cities and in Beijing Alvin had a hard time finding work. He eventually started working at a cafe.

Sometimes, the Chinese just want others to know they have foreign friends, says Sally, who laughs at a memory. Their Chinese friends invited them over for dinner one night to merely show them off proudly – as if they were trophies – to another Chinese couple.

For the duration of the meal, the Chinese friends chatted loudly while Sally and her husband ate quietly, dumbfounded by their friends, who would glance over at them like they were animals at a zoo.

Sally can laugh about it now. However, the two have headed back to Canada because they were tired of the way Alvin was being treated. "Like a second-class citizen," Sally says.

The Chinese seem to have a love-hate relationship with foreigners, and it's the same for some of the foreigners I know. Some of my waiguoren, or foreigner friends, need to break out in rants once in a while about the challenges of living in a developing country, and how poorly they're being treated.

We at times complain about the fact that we pay quadruple what locals pay at the markets and furniture stores. If you're Caucasian, you could pay up to 10 times or more the going rate, especially if you don't speak any Putonghua (Mandarin). That's because many Chinese assume foreigners are very wealthy. There's even a two-tiered rate for foreigners and locals at some tourist attractions.

There are 3,800 Canadians in China registered with the Canadian Embassy. But the number of Canadians in China is probably closer to 5,000.

And the number of foreigners studying Chinese is expanding rapidly. Just 20 years ago, fewer than 8,000 foreigners studied in China. By 2008, the government wants to see 120,000 foreign students in China, with the bulk of them studying in the capital city.

As for Asians like me, who look Chinese but don't speak fluently, the locals view us as their hillbilly cousins. Some downright chastise me for not speaking Chinese. I've given up and barely offer up my old answer: "But I'm not Chinese..."

I remember visiting Seoul right before the 1988 Olympics. There were barely any English signs and the few that were up were spelled wrong. The city was not foreigner-friendly at all. The Koreans were very hostile towards foreigners.

But what a different city it is now. Any non-Korean-speaking person can get around with ease in cities there, thanks to the preparations made to host the international event in '88.

The Chinese, like the Koreans and Japanese, have historically been isolated from the rest of the world. Their discriminatory attitudes are fuelled by fear and mistrust of foreigners, and a growing sense of nationalistic pride.

Let's hope that by the time the 2008 Olympics roll around, the capital city is a more open and welcoming place for foreigners and visiting dignitaries alike.

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Sylvia Yu

Sylvia is an author and journalist based in Beijing. Her varied career includes working as a broadcast journalist, TV producer, magazine editor and freelance writer in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto. She helped establish the Asian Heritage Society in Victoria, B.C. She's currently writing a book on "Comfort women" or military sex slaves used by the Japanese Imperial Army.

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