Did you know there were Polish Jews in Shanghai during the Second World War? I’ve come across the Shanghai Ghetto story when I worked in China in 2017. Let me share a few snippets of my Chinese adventures with you.
When I landed in Beijing, I quickly started feeling like an outsider, a minority. It was a humbling experience. Except, my white skin was also a source of privilege. I couldn’t change the local culture; all I could do was embrace my status as a ”light-skinned foreigner” and use that status to help others who weren’t as privileged as me. Yes, white privilege is a real thing in China, and in many other parts of the world, to this day. I’m talking about the actual privilege, not the made-up, often apologetic, nonsense we talk about in the West.
I was flying to Chengdu – a three-hour flight from Beijing.
I lived in an apartment complex on the eighteenth floor. When I walked into the elevator in the morning and after coming back from work, I glanced at the Policeman Remind sign on the wall. Yes. I know. The grammar mistake makes it all the more hilarious. Some kid was practicing the piano in an apartment next door. Every day, like clockwork.
There were no fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Refreshing.
I didn’t get an entry card to an apartment complex where I lived but security guards let me in anyway. I doubt the same would’ve happened had my skin been darker. The locals, in general, were polite and eager to help. When two police officers stopped me on the street, all sorts of unpleasant scenarios flashed through my mind. Luckily, they just wrote down my name. Yep. That’s white privilege for ya.
When I spoke with some of the locals, they often assumed English was the official language of Poland. I have an American accent, so their assumption was somewhat logical if they didn’t know anything about Poland.
Then again, the majority of locals associated whiteness with Americanness or Britishness. Clearly, a remnant of Anglo-American colonialism.
When walking around Chengdu at night, a woman in a three-wheeler rode up to me. Sidewalks, trucks whizzing by in the middle of the road, doesn’t matter. Three-wheeler drivers can get you anywhere. The question is if you don’t get a panic attack first.
I couldn’t understand her, my Mandarin isn’t exactly great, but I knew she’d wanted me to jump into the three-wheeler and go with her. She was aggressive about it, even blocking my way, and calling me meimei. Now, my Mandarin isn’t great but I know meimei happens to mean a young woman. Was it some kind of a strangely-phrased compliment, or an insult? Maybe both? I didn’t really care. I just wanted her to leave me alone.
Seeing that I wasn’t interested, she rode off. I don’t know if her intent was malicious, maybe she just saw a foreigner and wanted to earn some money, but something was off about that woman. China is generally safe but I have a feeling that I would’ve ended up in a Chinese village somewhere, had I gone with her back then, doing who knows what.
In another incident, a Chinese girl was helping me set up an internet connection in my apartment. For that, we needed to go to a local store and we needed her ID. A three-wheeler driver knew exactly where the store was. At one point, the Chinese girl just broke down crying, rattling off all the things wrong with China. Pollution, censorship, you name it. She saw a foreigner and likely thought she could just be real for a moment. Get this stuff off her chest. I just listened. I didn’t tell anyone at work about her breakdown.
Young Chinese people know exactly what needs improvement in their country. They are openly talking about it. I was impressed by their self-awareness, talent and focus.
My Chinese manager said that whites are a “smart, philosophical and egotistical race.” In a bizarre metaphysical twist, she even talked about souls having racial preferences. It was a profoundly perplexing statement to hear in an atheist country. It was also disturbing to hear her nonchalantly label dark-skinned people as unattractive and unintelligent. I don’t believe she was intentionally trying to be racist ― the warped worldview was perfectly logical to her. I challenged her vile views, sadly, to no avail.
A Black man I worked with summed up the local mindset by saying, “In China, white is right. My professional competencies get belittled, my voice gets ignored. White is international.” I was saddened to hear that he had been called ”coal-black” by strangers on a bus. Social justice warriors and politically correct types are advised to stay away from China. No one in China is going to care about you being offended.
I also spoke with white South Africans about their experiences and they felt much safer in China than in their own country.
When I visited a local zoo to see the pandas (I didn’t get to see many pandas, don’t expect to see them everywhere, that just isn’t the case), there was a loud peacock there, too. For some reason, I had a feeling that my foreign face was more interesting to people than the peacock.
I was tricked into dancing on the stage of the Global Center, along with many other foreigners. That’s something you just can’t describe, believe me.
I could write much more. Bottom line is, my time in China has expanded my horizons in ways I’ve never thought possible. It’s one thing talking about Asia, about China – it’s something dramatically different actually going there, not as a tourist, but for work.