This White Devil Right Here

Romeo Must Die, Rush Hour and Cradle 2 the Grave. Three movies with Chinese and black characters and all three were on TV today. What does this mean? Is it a holiday honoring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, DMX and Chris Tucker? Are black folks about to sign some sort of alliance or treaty with China?

No, have no fear. It only means it's still Black History Month since February is not over yet. And now, it's also Chinese New Year. Welcome to the Year of the Pig!

Hmm...Come to think of it, what a combination. Y'all soul food lovers better get ready to cook up a vat of chitlins.

Since the Chinese Zodiac goes in 12 year cycles, I have some very good memories of the last time the Year of the Pig was around. If you know me in real life, you know that twelve years ago, I lived at 56 Sui Yin Lu in Guangzhou, PRC. That's the People's Republic of China.

Living in China was one of the toughest things I've ever done and one of the best things too. I didn't really know what to expect before I got there. Even though I'd read my Lonely Planet book from cover to cover a dozen times, I still wasn't really prepared for life there. For one thing, everyone was Chinese. I mean, you know that going there, but then you see the reality of it. There weren't any black people, no Puerto Ricans, nobody from Hungary or Poland, no rivers being dyed green on St. Patrick's Day. Nope, nothing but Chinese people all around.

You have to understand, twelve years ago, China was not as politically or culturally open as it is today. The Internet as we know it today, was just starting to get going. And, in a city with millions of people in it, there were two McDonald's and one Pizza Hut. There was no Starbucks to be found. There wasn't even a Wal-Mart in China yet. Not even a real shopping mall either.

Even though Guangzhou is the size of LA, there were no freeways because most people didn't own cars back then. I sometimes saw other expats or foreign businessmen if I decided to bike down to the central financial district where the McDonald's was. Sometimes I got a serious craving for scrambled eggs and pancakes and I'd splurge and bike over to the ultra posh Garden Hotel. There'd always be a couple of foreign businessmen there from France, Australia or the UK sitting at the restaurant table next to mine. Sometimes they were friendly, particularly the guys from France. Sometimes they weren't. I often got the feeling that many of them were on the prowl for Chinese prostitutes.

I remember that at the time, Hong Kong was still under British control and my phone calls to and from the U.S. were regularly tapped. I used to laugh a little at the telltale clicking and the occasional sneezes and coughs that indicated that someone was listening in on my phone calls. I suppose the phone updates from friends and family on what was happening with the OJ Simpson trial must have seemed like some sort of big American state secrets.

My life was not as glamorous as that. After all, I was only an English teacher at a private Chinese boarding school. The biggest change was that even though I was constantly stared at, it was the first time in my life that I didn't feel the kind of racism that we get so used to here in the United States. I was still black, but I stopped being black. Sounds confusing, I know, but let me try to explain: Since I didn't look like Michael Jordan or Whitney Houston, people didn't know where to put me racially. They didn't automatically think I was black. In fact, no one ever thought I was even an American because at the time, the perception was that all Americans had blond hair and blue eyes. Actually, to go even deeper, people didn't initially care where I was from. They just knew I wasn't Chinese.

If someone followed me around a store, they weren't following me because they were worried I was going to steal something. No, they were following me around because they were curious about what a foreigner would buy. No one suggested that I only got into college because of affirmative action. No one told me that my hair was ugly or that it would look better straighter. In fact, Chinese people loved my hair because it was so very different in texture from their own. Hairdressers at the shop by my apartment building got into arguments over who'd have the privilege of doing my hair. And, if I didn't see any women that looked like me on fashion magazine covers, it was no big deal because, well, there wasn't really anyone else that looked liked me around and there were billions of Chinese people.

Like I said, in China, the only thing that mattered was that I wasn't Chinese. I was simply a "guai lo" (Cantonese) or a "lao wei" (Mandarin), both of which translate into "white devil". Or, nowadays when people are trying to be PC, they say, "foreign devil". Oh, sometimes I wished Louis Farrakhan was standing next to me getting called a white devil, just so I could laugh.

Most of the time, when I rode my bike for hours around the city, I went into lots of the neighborhoods that are off the touristy path. So many rural Chinese come to Guangzhou looking for work that there were lots of folks who'd never before seen someone in person who wasn't Chinese. I got into seven bike accidents in China and half of them were with people who would freak out when they realized that a "lao wei" was biking alongside them. They'd start shrieking, "Lao wei! Lao wei!" And then, next thing you know, their handlebars would lock with mine and they'd be toppling over on top of me. And then all the bikes that had been riding along behind me would crash on top of me too. They'd apologize, and to save face, they'd invite me for tea. I actually made a couple of good friends that way.

And then, I came back to the United States shortly before the OJ Simpson verdict was read. As happy as I was to see so many of my friends and family, deep down, I was fiercely depressed and wanted to leave again. I wanted to get away from a country divided so insistently along racial lines. I wanted to go back to a place where no one was saying to me, "Do you feel proud that your people got OJ Simpson off because of fear that there's going to be another LA Riots?"

Now, twelve years later, the Year of the Pig has rolled back around. I read over at Field Negro's blog about the racial divides in the blogosphere: It's being called the whiteosphere and the blackosphere. Then, I see how charged conversations about Barack Obama are becoming. "Barack can't win if he seems like he cares too much about black people" or, "Barack's a separatist because he attends a black church." I see how revelers go celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but it feels like someone's trying to brush away the real history of a city that used to be majority black. And it all makes me wonder if China, with her new openness, has lost some of that innocence she once had.

When I was in Guangzhou, all I had to say was that I bought something in America and people would love it. I'd buy a shirt in a Guangzhou street market and if I told people I got it in Guangzhou, they'd think it was ok. But, if I told them that I'd bought the shirt in America, they'd say it was the cutest shirt they'd ever seen. I wanted to tell them, don't love all that we Americans have to offer you. Don't absorb our culture so quickly.

China has a Wal-Mart and Starbucks now, but please, I pray they don't take everything we Americans want to give. We here in America like to say to ourselves, "I'm not a racist". Because we're all living in racially integrated neighborhoods, right? And we all have a diverse group of friends that we hang out with outside of work, right? And we date or marry people regardless of their racial background, right?

In China, I could see only having Chinese friends, etc., because that's all that's around. Here though, what's our excuse?


velvet said…
This was a great post! I loved reading your recollections of your time in China. Expatriate living is certainly an eye-opening and life altering experience, isn't it? I used to be a blonde haired blue eyed girl in the Middle East for a few years and it was really different.

My husband is actually Chinese-American. I regret leaving the urban mix that we were living in and moving into the 'burbs because they're... so... homogenous (read: white). I would much rather that my kids grew up in a more mixed cultural environment; unfortunately, we couldn't afford it when it came time to buy.

Again, great post and I hope that you might write about some more about your time in China. It was really enjoyable and I can only imagine some of the experiences that you must have had. :)

What a fascinating post, Liz. Living in China must have been a marvelous and life-changing experience. It is certainly one that I envy as I have always wanted to live in Asia long enough to really understand the culture of another country.

One would think that since we live in a place with diverse ethnicities, we would celebrate that fact and all become so much richer for it. The fact that we are largely divided is a pathetic indication that as a people, we are blowing some of our best opportunities to add dimension and understanding to our lives.

It is impossible to fathom such extreme stubbornness and stupidity.

When Kennedy ran for office, many people were deeply upset by the fact that he was a Catholic. These are the same kinds of people who have a problem with Obama's attendance at a "black" church, although they would not have accepted him into their own "white" churches.

It is really too bad that those with closed minds and frozen hearts are allowed to vote because they keep us all in a virtual stone age.

I was not aware of a division in the blogosphere. That's crazy. When will we get that we cannot learn and grow if we associate only with those who are basically clones of ourselves? Because like it or not, learning, growing, and opening our hearts is what we are really here for.

Happy Chinese New Year to you, Liz
Anonymous said…
Hi Liz, this was an amazing post. I really liked how you described the sense of being in a different setting and how the context of "blackness" changed for you. And I think it is brave of you to have gone and done something that will stay with you for the rest of life. Plus the tie-in with the "divide in the blogosphere" and the effect Barrack Obama may or may not be having on the polls, etc. (I was not as aware of the blogosphere divide as the Obama one.) Keep writing, I'll keep reading.

Gung hay fat choy!
Anonymous said…
Hi, Liz.

I came to your blog by way of ABW.

Wonderful post. You got to live in China. Heck, I'd give anything to be called a "foreign devil" by a Chinese. Just to be able to leave behind, even if for only a year, America's race hatred and destructive mendacity that is tearing this country apart.

"In China, I could see only having Chinese friends, etc., because that's all that's around. Here though, what's our excuse?"

Yes. What is America's excuse?

The most racially diverse country in the world, with so many people who have so many talents, skills and capabilities to offer, but, this country would rather see those desires stunted and crushed into depression, anger, and rage.

America does not have to worry about "evils" from abroad bringing this country down.

America is doing a bangup job disregarding her own vast pool of various races/ethnicities who if they were allowed to live their potential, would make this country truly the greatest country on the planet.

But, what can you expect when a country would rather throw a large majority of its citizens into the trash, as opposed to acknowledging all the gifts they have to offer.

And on the division in the blogosphere.

Yes, there is definately division, but, this division was already deeply entrenched way BEFORE Obama came along.

Great blog!

Liz Dwyer said…
I do need to share some more stories of my time in China because it was really great and incredibly eye-opening. I'll bet your experience in the mideast was absolutely fascinating as well! You bring up an interesting point though about more diverse places being more expensive where you live. I wonder if that's a trend nationally and at what point does a place become too diverse to be desirable?

Happy New Year to you too! Yes, we are blowing our opportunities and I think the racially and culturally divisive ways we operate damages our credibility to the rest of the world. We tell other people to stop fighting (Shi'ite and Sunni, can't ya'll just get along?) but how can we have any true legitimacy when we are always dividing ourselves in similar fashions?

Have things warmed up there yet? I used to joke that the only time I saw racial unity in Chicago was when folks waiting for the El were huddled together under a heat lamp.

Welcome and thanks for visiting! I'll admit that sometimes there are those days (yesterday at the park, watching my son trying to play with two white kids that dissed him) that I think, "That's it! I'm packing up and going back to China!" but there's no place to really escape what we do here in this country...even if it was nice to get away from it for awhile. And I agree, the division was around before Obama and the word "president" became synonymous.
West said…
Great read. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
You did what myself and so many of my friends often talked about doing but never did: you taught English and lived abroad (in China no less). I sense a bit pride in your post at being a black American living in a foreign land, and I think you should feel proud. You went into the unknown, taking a chance at actually living and experiencing life. Too many of us don't do that. Awesome, and inspiring post.
Anonymous said…
Fantastic post- I definitely hope you post more on this. Your musings about the racism in China (or lack thereof) reminded me of a friend I had in college. She is biracial- black and Italian and was so frustrated with Americans. While traveling throughout the world she'd be approached by many people and complimented on her looks.

In Europe it was always "You're so beautiful/pretty!" which was fine, but in America it was always "You are so pretty- what race are you?" She found the race obsession pretty sickening and couldn't wait to return overseas after finishing her graduate degree.
the last noel said…
Like everyone said, this post was amaaaaaaazing. It really took me to another place and time. Travel writer Pico Iyer said you are never truly sophisticated unless you can identify with "The Other." This Otherness, which you so beautifully demonstrated in your post, can bridge understanding between cultures. Ur, it's being suggested that China will greatly influence this new century. Someday, someone will ask you: what was it like? You can be part of the answer.
jali said…
Beautiful post!
Anonymous said…
just thought i'd chime in and compliment your post. very interesting. i'm chinese-american, but have never been to china. i don't speak chinese too well, and that makes me a bit worried about how things would be if i did go for a visit. in the US, i'm thought of as chinese, but it makes me wonder what i'd be thought of as when i'm in china. have you ever been to africa? was it like that for you?
Liz Dwyer said…
Hey Anonymous,
Folks there said they could always spot ABC's (American Born Chinese)just by looking at someone. I remember the general impression of ABC's being very stereotypical but there was also a very stereotypical impression of white Americans as well as black Americans. You'll be fine if you have an open heart and are warm and considerate. Remember, the universal language is a smile. You'll go visit and you might not want to come back.

I've never been to Africa (no way of knowing what country on the continent some of my mom's peeps come from) or to Ireland either, but someday I'll make the trip.
Hey LIz! I just found your blog here, coming from Anti-Racist Parent. I lived in China for two years (Heilongjiang Province, outside Harbin, early 80s) teaching English. I am gluten-free too, because I have Celiac disease. I have three sons; two of them are still little guys... do we have a lot in common, or what??? I am going to blogroll you!
Anonymous said…
"In China, I could see only having Chinese friends, etc., because that's all that's around. Here though, what's our excuse?"

I N C R E D I B L E.

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