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Chinese people on subway China is a homogenous society, and thus imagines that real Americans are blond and blue-eyed. (Connie Wu photos)
Encountering discrimination as an Asian American in China

Editor's note: We apologize for any offense caused by this dispatch's previous title, which was not written by the author.

When my Mandarin fails me, my Chinese counterpart usually figures that I am either Korean or Japanese, but never an American. Even when I nudge him or her a little and say, "No, no, I am from a country that speaks English, so I am from.?" Their immediate answer is "Singapore!" I guess it is hard it is to believe that a Chinese-looking, English-speaking girl is from America.

Why does this happen? The Chinese have a very particular idea of who is considered an American. To the average Chinese, an American is blonde and blue-eyed, as seen in the movies. As a homogenous society, most Chinese are not too responsive to the fact that America is a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of various cultures and ethnicities. Hybrid identities such as African American, Spanish American, and Asian American don't seem to ring a strong bell in the many locals I have met. Rather, our skin color is the single identity marker determining who we are. So in the eyes of many Chinese people, white Americans are the only authentic Americans.

This mentality unfortunately makes it hard to be an Asian American in China sometimes, particularly when racial preferences get in the way. For those ABCs [American-born Chinese] out there, you know what I am talking about. Many of us "bananas" have encountered this prejudice in China, especially when we try to teach English in Chinese schools.

Our Asian faces immediately make our English skills suspect, which leads to quick denials of employment simply because of the way we look. We are often questioned by suspicious employers about whether we speak fluent English, how long we have been in the United States, how well we know English grammar, and even whether we are really Americans. Even after passing such an interrogation, we are usually denied the teaching position. Our credentials often mean very little when it comes to hiring foreigners to teach English. My Asian friends in the English-teaching market describe themselves as second rate, hired only to fill in gaps. And now that Chinese schools require each applicant to send in a picture, the first wave of weeding out the "inauthentic" English speakers will be made much easier. As expected, we ABCs or almost-ABCs are among the first ones to go.

 Fragrant Park
This 'fragrant hills park' in Beijing is a tranquil place to think.

Recently, I browsed through the Internet and came across many complaints like this one and this one posted by Americans of color on this matter. Stories included people receiving lower pay than white Americans while doing more work, and a Stanford guy with good teaching credentials who was bluntly turned away by an employer that said they don't hire Chinese-looking English teachers.

I find it sad that despite the Chinese frenzy of learning American English, many Chinese people are missing the crucial point that this "American English" is made of and spoken by Americans of various colors and ethnicities.

My Asian American friends who have all dealt with this call it flat-out racism. I agree; even though the word "racism" may not be the best choice, what I have encountered definitely amounts to racial preferences. I am offended when I am questioned about my ability to tutor oral English. Like many of my friends in the English teaching market, I am also insulted when I am considered less able to teach American English just because I look Chinese. And like many of my friends, I get angry when I know that I am being treated differently than a white American standing next to me primarily because of the color of my skin. Isn't it bad enough that Asians face discrimination in the United States without having also to face discrimination from our own ethnic people?

The English teaching sector gives only a small snippet of China's racism. The reality actually seeps much deeper. I have noticed the difference in treatment between an average Chinese and a foreigner, particularly a westerner. When I go out with a Caucasian friend, the difference is subtle but noticeable. Services are better, cars slow down a little more often at the crossroads, and attitudes are friendlier. But these upgraded services are directed toward my more foreign-looking friend than toward me. My Chinese American friends have discovered that obtaining train tickets at the ticket booth during peak season is easier if you bring along Caucasian friends: the "waibing" or "foreign guests," usually seem to get the upper class treatment.

Since I look Chinese, I usually get the "regular service," which can be very dry and rude, to say the very least. But attitudes improve quite obviously when I reveal my American identity.

Discrimination also runs deep between urbanites and migrant workers. Migrant workers in Beijing have already been desensitized by the discrimination they face in their daily life. Their peasant status makes them the bottom of urban society, the very last rung of the social ladder on which everyone steps to climb up. As the most vulnerable group in large cities like Beijing, migrant workers are looked down upon, ignored, and taken advantage of by their urbanite counterparts.

I am saddened by the racism that exists in China, one brought on by the masses and directed toward the masses. I am disturbed by the infectious discrimination that dwells in the hearts of many people I encounter every day in Beijing. The quality of services delivered to a local Chinese is often lower than it is for a foreigner, whether it is administrative services or just the treatment by the average cashier at a store. I can only shake my head when I see that a Chinese national has been devalued in the face of a foreign guest.

Why does this happen? One can cite the economic reason and say that foreigners are considered wealthier, so better service means higher monetary compensation. But it's not that simple. One could also say that people in the service sector are trained to make a good impression on foreign guests. But wouldn't showing similar kindness toward your own people make a stronger impression? Wouldn't giving your own people the same respect as you do foreign guests increase the dignity of the Chinese people as a whole?

Sometimes I just don't get it. The sense of nationalism is extremely high here; snippets of high praise for the nation's ethnic pride float all over the place. Yet, out in the streets of Beijing, the nation's capital, racism and discrimination scar the pride of the people.