Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Asian (Chinese) Discrimination

I met a girl. A cute girl.

I’ve been living in Shenzhen for a little more than 6 months now. I have a lot of extended family living here and I’ve made a bunch of friends. However, one part of my social life that has been lacking is girls…or atleast until recently.

2 weekends ago I met a girl named Mei Feng, or Scarlet, randomly at a club. We danced, chatted, hung out and played dice at her table. We had such a good time that I invited her to dinner a couple of days later.

Before arriving at the date, I was kind of nervous. I have the annoying habit of forgetting what people’s names when I’m drinking. Even worse, I usually have no recollection of what they look like either (bad times). When Scarlet finally arrived, however, I was relieved. She was cuter than I had remembered.

Not only did she have an tall, athletic and curvy body, but also tanned skin. She had nice big eyes, a gentle nose and really nice lips. Her smile filled up the room.

As we got to know each other better during our dinner conversation, I discovered a few interesting things about her (among others)

  • She didn't have too much experience with dating because guys would always talk to her friends and rarely talk to her.
  • She was made fun of as a child for being tall. Many of her cousins didn't like to walk with her down the street because of the disparity in height (she’s not that tall)
  • She was made fun of as a child for having darker skin tone. That continues this day.
  • When I complemented her on her smile and lips, she was surprised. No one had ever said anything nice about them. Everyone only said negative things.

I was very surprised by these things because, in my perspective, she was a very attractive girl. While I found all of her attributes sexy, the majority opinion in China sees her as average with unattractive features. The next weekend, I invited her to hang out with a few friends and me at a bar. All of my Chinese friends thought she was average. My boy, Jason, from the US agreed with my view.

In a recent post on China Law Blog, entitled China Has No Racial Discrimination, Dan Harris addressed a very interesting issue on racial discrimination in China that made me think about Scarlet.

The post this time is on an article I just read from Xinhua proclaiming that "all ethnic groups in China are equal and no racial discrimination exists.

As I learned in my Liberalism, Communitarianism and the Good class and my 1st Amendment class at Columbia, it is important to dissect a statement and examine the all of the phrases and words. In this statement, the most important parts are China and racial. This statement only addresses ethnic Chinese people in China, not expats and foreigners in China. It also only addresses discrimination on the issue of race.

By getting to know Scarlet in the past couple of weeks, she can be a good guide in this discussion. She is from a poor family in 广西 province.

  • Scarlet came from a poor family. She didn't go to college and dropped out of high school. She migrated to Shenzhen to find work, but had a difficult time finding it because of her educational background. After a lot of hard work and some luck, she’s a successful sales associate for Mary Kay cosmetics.
  • Scarlet is a tall girl (around 1.70m). While this is considered a good trait to have in China, Scarlet experienced discrimination as a kid. Since she was taller than her just about everyone in her family, only her father would walk with her. None of female family members would walk with her due to the height disparity. Also, men are intimidated of her since she was young based on her height. Being taller myself (I’m 6’2” or about 1.91m), I have only gotten compliments.
  • Scarlet has relatively big feet (size 37...i’m guessing a 6?). Everyone makes fun of her because of it and she can’t fit into the tiny high heels like everyone else can.
  • Scarlet has big round eyes and a soft nose (good things) - and big lips and a big mouth (bad things). She gets complimented and made fun of for the respective traits
  • Scarlet has dark skin. She feels it is a big drawback on her looks. As someone in the cosmetics industry, she understands how much “prettier” it is to have fair skin. However, she cant help it. I have really tan skin. I was actually just made fun of it 3x today from a couple of my colleagues and yesterday, from my aunt.
  • Scarlet is from 广西 and spoke Cantonese growing up. Her Mandarin is fine, but needs improvement. She definitely has a slight accent. Although her friends give her slack for it, it doesn't effect her professional career.
  • I have no clue what ethnic group Scarlet is in.

Scarlet's story can be redone for the entire Chinese population. My cousin is affluent and has fair skin, but isn’t as skinny and slim as the typical Chinese girl. I am tall and have an Ivy League education, but I have dark skin and can’t write Chinese characters that well (I’m still working on it). My friend is considered handsome and has a lot of street smarts but he’s shorter than average and didn't do well in school. It’s all the same: people are loved for their “accepted” attributes and discriminated against for their 缺点. That’s life in China.

From my experience living in China with Chinese friends and family, I have never known what ethnic group anyone was. My aunt on my father’s side is Manchu. I found that out last year when my mom told me. My grand-uncle on my father’s side is Mongul. A few of my colleagues are all minorities from small rural villages. No one has any clue until they are specifically told. That is the beauty of China: solely based on your skin color: You can be identified as maybe poorer, maybe a laborer, maybe a 花销 (Oversees Chinese). What you can’t see is your ethnic group.


ChinaLawBlog said...

Great post. Chinese men clearer favor frail, pale skineed women, whereas Americans tend to like a more athletic less pale look. Just another reason to praise diversity. Interestingly, height is generally highly regarded in most cultures.

ChinaLawBlog said...

Whoops. That should have been "skinned," not "skineed" in the last post.

Anonymous said...

"That is the beauty of China: solely based on your skin color: You can be identified as maybe poorer, maybe a laborer, maybe a 花销 (Oversees Chinese). What you can’t see is your ethnic group."

Hmm. What you are saying that there is basically no racism in China because most people look the same. Now, would accept that argument being used in a European country before non-European immigration? "That's the beauty of Britain: you can't tell a Scot or a French apart because they look basically the same." Do you see my point?

Mike said...

Anonymous - most definitely, i agree whole heartedly. I was going to compare it to all of the white people in the US. Since everyone is white, no one can tell or cares what specific ethnic group everyone is. Everyone is just white.

davesgonechina said...

"You can be identified as maybe poorer, maybe a laborer, maybe a 花销 (Oversees Chinese). What you can’t see is your ethnic group.""

"Anonymous - most definitely, i agree whole heartedly."

First of all there are ethnic groups you can see: Uyghurs first and foremost, who endure a great deal of discrimination. Second of all, there's the clear racial discrimination that numerous people of African descent have suffered. So its not entirely true that you can't see any ethnic groups within China, and there are people who discriminate racially but simply don't have many opportunities because they don't meet many black people in person.

Third, there are plenty of Asians who get discriminated against by Chinese people. One example is a Singaporean friend of mine who, despite his fluent English (educated in Australia), was denied a teaching job he was well qualified for because he was "not a white face". Or how about Washington Post reporter Maureen Fan, who blogs about how she is routinely stopped by security guards in Beijing simply because of her face?

Mike said...

No one can pretend that Chinese people are not racist.

I would argue that Chinese people are the MOST racist people in the world!! No joke. Chinese people believe they are superior to all other Asian races. Chinese people look down on Blacks, Hispanics and others.

I have never seen myself, or have ever heard of any discrimination against any ethnic group that is Chinese. This is just my experience (i've traveled to Yunnan 云南, Guizhou 贵州 and have been to many minority areas in China),

Again...I have never met, seen or heard of any Chinese on Chinese racial discrimination in China.

davesgonechina said...

"I have never met, seen or heard of any Chinese on Chinese racial discrimination in China."

Mike, I'm confused. If by "Chinese" you mean citizens of the PRC, then Han attitudes towards the Uyghurs (and vice versa) can be good examples of Chinese on Chinese ethnic discrimination. If by "Chinese", you mean people whose ancestors lived on the Mainland, spoke Chinese, have Chinese/Asiatic features, and are generally Han or not-unlike-Han, then my Singaporean friend and Maureen Fan are both examples of Chinese on Chinese ethnic discrimination.

You may have never met or seen it, but I thought after my previous comment you had at least heard of it.

Mike said...

davesgonechina -

I am referring to the first example. When you say that Han and Uyghurs have hateful attitudes to each other, i say 2 things: 1. of all of my family/friends, extended family, acquaintances, and myself (who are Han nationality), I have never heard anything discriminatory. Many people that I know really enjoy the food and have been to the upper northwest.

2. If there is a divide, have you ever considered it to be caused from differing religious attitudes and traditions, and not racial. We could run an interesting experiment of a Uyghur who is not muslium in a Han community and a Han who is muslium in an Uyghur community. Would there still be discrimination?

I would say no, but that's me.

In terms of ethnic Chinese who are not "Chinese" anymore, like people from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, American (like me), Canadian, European, ect., I would not include them in this statement. Chinese people are incredibly racist to people from other places...unless they can adapt to Chinese culture and language. (this is how i'm usually not noticed and why this blog is called Shenzhen UNDERCOVER).

Thanks for your comment.

davesgonechina said...


I'm not saying anyone you know harbors a secret hatred of Uyghurs or any other group. But after living in Xinjiang for a few years, I can say with great confidence there a great deal of people who discriminate racially against others - Uyghurs about Hans, Hans about Uyghurs. By this I mean they see the other persons facial features and immediately ascribe some negative characteristics to them simply based on their phenotype. This is what I mean by racism. When a Chinese guard cards Maureen Fan in Beijing because she has an Asian appearance but doesn't do this to any white journalists, this is also racism. Based on the color of their skin and shape of their face, someone makes prejudiced assumptions about them. To say that Fan, ABCs such as yourself or Singaporeans "don't count" doesn't really make sense to me, because of my definition of "race" and "racism". Racism is a product of unfair assumptions based on appearance. Prejudice about where you are from is prejudice, but not racism. If you don't like any people from New York, you are not a racist. You are simply prejudiced. Knowledge of culture and language don't even factor in here, because snap judgments are made in my examples before anyone opens their mouth to betray their ignorance.

As for question number 2, there have been times when I have witnessed the answer has been "yes". Religious attitudes and traditions may increase distance, but that doesn't cause the hostility and stereotyping on both sides. That is the result of the Uyghurs overwhelming belief that the Han Chinese are invaders, and the tensions over whose land it is. It is a product of history and competing national identities.

Mike said...

First, I've never lived or been to Xinjiang myself... so I don’t have any personal knowledge of what goes on there. Since you've been there for a while, I’ll take your word for it.

I'm sitting here reading your definition of racism and I know why our views are different. For me, and my discussion of this article, racism is something that is prevalent in a culture, not just a few people or a small group of people based on location (xinjiang)... and I don’t think Chinese on Chinese racism exists in Chinese culture. Maybe your right... that there is conflict from different people in xinjiang, Tibet, ect., but I see those as isolated environments, isolated people and interactions. Maybe some people don’t consider themselves Chinese and want independence. How successful are any arguments when we put these people into the equation? This blog is about personal experiences and interactions "from the inside".. and I can say that of the thousands of Chinese that I’ve met and interacted with in my lifetime, I have never thought about what ethnic group they were in. I feel that's the prevailing thought for mostly all Chinese... until you get to the outskirt border.

In terms of Chinese Americans, ABCs, Singapore people... I think that is a totally different discussion. China has a great sense of in-out (as you prob know) and outsiders are treated incredibly differently. Like I said before, Chinese people are extremely prejudice towards outsiders. With your 1 example of Maureen Fan in Beijing, I can give you 20 examples of me going into a 5 star hotel, asking in Chinese for a free magazine and the concierge ignoring me, compared to when I come back 5 minutes later, asking for the same thing in English, and they are incredibly polite and helpful. (or the new Shenzhen tax law that gives foreign companies a lower tax than mainland companies... or how HK people can travel freely to China but Chinese people cant travel freely to HK... the list goes on).

However, I consider those examples in a different realm of Chinese-Chinese interactions/feelings.

Rene Patnode said...

I think it's important to distinguish different kinds of racism and also different notions of "Chinese-ness." Because of that, I partially agree with both Mike and Dave.

I think Dave is correct in that I feel racism in China (and other Asian countries) is often more subtle than what we would often recognize as being racist in the west, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not racism.

I think Mike is correct in that I can't think of any instance of Chinese on Chinese racism that I have come across that follows a less subtle definition. But I say this with a very narrow definition of what is "Chinese." Given the great degree of cultural assimilation prevalent in China today, I would concede the Chinese-ness of the Zhuang or the Bai for example, but would steer clear of assigning the same label to the Uyghurs unless we are talking purely about nationality. Perhaps this lack of explicit racism also stems from the Han assuming Chinese-ness on the part of the minority ethnicities, while the other ethnicities themselves in varying degress might not feel that they are quite so Chinese. I have found this to be true for the Korean-Chinese for example.

Finally, as an EFL teacher in China, I have heard several Han students comment on the perceived unfair advantages that minority students receive, which sounds similar to anti-affirmative action sentiment in America.

davesgonechina said...

@Mike: "With your 1 example of Maureen Fan in Beijing, I can give you 20 examples of me going into a 5 star hotel, asking in Chinese for a free magazine and the concierge ignoring me, compared to when I come back 5 minutes later, asking for the same thing in English, and they are incredibly polite and helpful."

It's interesting we see this different ways, because to me this example is very much about race. If I, a white guy, attempt the same thing, they will hand me the magazine and applaud my Chinese (we're gonna imagine my putonghua gongfu is crazy strong here). I agree with you in-out makes a tremendous difference, but yellow and white are very big factors in this as well. And I do believe that these snap judgments based on skin tone are manifest in the culture, not only certain individuals.

Ethnic discrimination and racism are not the same thing. If I am Scotsman with a passionate hatred of the English (redundant?), I am not racist. I am prejudiced. There is physical trait that singles out Englishmen. If I am a Han with a passionate hatred of Mongolians, I don't think this counts as racism. (Unless there's some physical trait that immediately identifies all Mongolians I'm unaware of.)

If I'm a yellow person who believes that white people should be treated differently simply because they are white, that's racist. It is a prejudice based simply on a racial characteristic, a physical feature.

"I can say that of the thousands of Chinese that I’ve met and interacted with in my lifetime, I have never thought about what ethnic group they were in."

That is interesting. Perhaps you should start. I remember a Manchu colleague joking (with myself and some Han colleagues) about how moon cakes celebrate the order to kill all her people. She only mentioned it after I had inquired about her ethnicity, and her Han colleagues had never known. It opened up a whole new world of dark humor but also allowed her to express things she wouldn't have otherwise.

"a different realm of Chinese-Chinese interactions/feelings."

Are you placing the concierge example in this realm?

@Rene: Xinjiang has alot of that affirmative action resentment you mention. My Han students had a great deal of trouble understanding that Uyghurs felt these privileges were never the Chineses' to give in the first place. It is interesting how this sentiment is directed at the minorities themselves, rather than the government that instituted the system.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for jumpstarting this interesting conversation about Chinese bias.
It is also interesting to note that Dave--a white guy--and you--ABC's different interpretations of somewhat similar events. For me, this is very enlightening. Chinese, the Han, culture is based on "Li" 礼 basically it means that there is a distinction between young and old, between inside and outside. 长幼,内外。Chinese, at least most of them, will direct the contents of the conversation according to the rules of in/out. Mike, since you are an "undercover" with your Chinese look, people will treat you most of the time as they treat their countryfolks. Among Chinese--minorities included--the common topics for conversations are not about race or ethnicity. And Dave is a white guy, the some Chinese who speak English will talk with him about the topics Chinese would think the white people would be interested in--race, human rights. When Chinese read English media such as New York Times, those are the topics. Seriously, those topics Chinese would talk with outsiders to their culture.

Mike said...

Anonymous -

Great observation. I like that and totally agree. There is definitely differences between how Chinese people treat the 里 and the 外.

However, I would argue against your final statement that the Chinese people "want" to talk to outsiders about race/human rights. What I believe is that the western person wants to talk about those issues because that's what they see, placing their own understanding, culture and views onto the Chinese model that doesnt necessarily fit. The Chinese person goes along with it to get famous in the western media and to practice English!


davesgonechina said...

@anonymous: since I like beating dead horses, I'll just point out that the 里/外 distinction can be potentially racist. Assuming that someone's skin color denotes their insideness or outsideness without considering any other factors and basing your decision solely on skin color means you are utilizing racial stereotypes. It's not plantation slavery racist, or genocide racist, but it's still a form of racism. An ABC might appear Chinese, but not speak a word of Chinese (of any flavor), lost family ties nor know a single thing about Chinese culture, while a white person may have lived in China for two decades, speak three dialects, be married into a local family and practice any number of Chinese cultural habits. The white guy is far more inside, but a racist would never guess this because they only see skin color.

If a Chinese person speaks to me in English about human rights solely because I am white, then that Chinese person is thinking in a racist way. They assume because of my skin color not only that I'm interested in such topics, but that I speak English in the first place! Your hypothetical character is being racist.

Mike said...

davesgonechina -

I feel your definition of "racist" is very broad. To me, the examples that you just described are about stereotypes and assumptions. However, in my view, stereotypes and assumptions based on race is not always racist.

If I see a guy with a hard hat and hammer, i'm going to assume that he's a construction worker. It's not because of any negative or positive connotation, but because all of the previous experience with people wearing hard hats and holding hammers were construction workers.

I feel that racism is about systematic non-inclusion, inequality. It has a great deal of negative connotation.

With that definition, what's so bad about a Chinese person thinking a white person speaks English. He thinks this way because all of the previous white people he's talked to speak it.

davesgonechina said...

@Mike: a hard hat and a hammer are tools made for a specific purpose. A hammer can not choose what it believes, nor can a hard hat learn or have a different set of experiences. These are abilities, however, that human beings possess.

AskOxford.com says "racism" is:

"noun 1 the belief that there are characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to each race. 2 discrimination against or antagonism towards other races."

Definition #1 has nothing to do with positive or negative. It simply has to do with assuming a person has certain qualities simply due to their race. This is what occurs with the concierge, Maureen Fan's compound guard and Chinese people who think I'm interested in civil rights because I'm white. It's equally applicable to white Americans who automatically assume all Asians are Chinese, or that all Asian people know karate or have uncles named "General Tso".

Definition #2 certainly includes antagonism or the negativity you refer to, but it is not required for something to be considered racism. Even in definition #2 discrimination is enough. Discrimination does not require malice.

It is not terrible when a Chinese person assumes a white person speaks English. This is not racism on the level of gas chambers or ethnic cleansing, or even the use of ethnic slurs. It is minor and forgiveable. It is the result of ignorance. But it is still, technically, racism, and the exact same kind of logic (i.e. this face/complexion/nose size = this individual has such and such thoughts and abilities) that underlies more dangerous racism.

Mike said...


Oh come on man. When I say, so and so is a racist, do you think of definition 1 or definition 2?

I do agree with your basic point, but your argument kind of reminds me of the Geico commercials with the Cavemen.

Anonymous said...

An inside/outside distinction is not about race at least at its origin but about a behaviorial code within Chinese. For a white folk whose ancesters put racism as the foundation of their social, economic and most importantly legal systems,to accuse of Chinese being racist for keeping to their own tradition, it is not only ridiculous, but imperialistic. People have bias; Asians, Europeans, Africans and Americans all have bias towards others. But let's face it, the white peoples enslavement, colonization of the black peoples is unparalled in history. The whole attitude that "I am the arbitor" of right/wrong, imposing one's own value system upon another culture, that is the whole nature of racism.

davesgonechina said...

@Mike: I think it's pretty clear by now which one I think about. If we're going to go by the one you seem to be referring to, then I guess Asian math jokes aren't a problem?

@Anonymous: I was distinguishing the in/out distinction from racial judgments, not equating them. Second of all, you don't know who my ancestors were. There's alot of different white folk, some of whom have been the victims of prejudicial societies not the perpetrators, but we're apparently all the same to you. You racist fuck.

Mike said...

To address your example of the "Asian math joke"...

First of all, the context are totally different. In China, people have misconceptions of white people because they have only seen a few of them...and interacted with even fewer of them. White people are usually on the outside of society, on a business trip/1 year teaching foray/a 3 week tour, ect. When I take my expat friends out to hang out with my Chinese friends, there are no discussions about human rights. Who cares about that when your drinking?

In the US, however, Asian math jokes are still prevelant in a society where Asian people are supposed to be included and integrated into the society. When I already live, eat, hang out and go to school with all of these other Americans... they should know what i'm about from their extensive interactions with me (and other Asians in their community). Even with this greater interaction and communication, many Americans are still exhibiting what you would call "racist" behavior.

"Racist" Chinese are so because they are usually ignorant of people from the outside. "Racist" Americans are so because they're usually just plain racist.

And for me, I never cared about the math jokes in school because I was always better than everyone else in it. Asian math sterotype is true when 99% of Asians are good at math...

If you want to examine something in depth, look at the stereotype of Asians being not athletic. I started on every basketball and football team I played on. Even though my fellow classmates see me playing, do they still maintain that Asian people are not athletic even though they see otherwise right in front of them? I would say yes.

davesgonechina said...

""Racist" Chinese are so because they are usually ignorant of people from the outside. "Racist" Americans are so because they're usually just plain racist."

I certainly not arguing that Americans have fewer excuses for their racism. But racism is a form of ignorance - sometimes willful, sometimes not. A lack of exposure to other ethnic groups doesn't mean they're not racist. It simply means that their racism is partly due to a lack of opportunity to know better, while it sounds like some of your classmates had that opportunity and didn't get it.

Anyway, I think my original comment way back was about Chinese on Chinese discrimination. I still think it exists. The ESL industry in China alone has enough proof of this. And then there's the fetishizing of Uyghur and Miao women and the demonizing of Uyghur men. And I think it's just naive to think that having your ethnicity on your CV (as so many in China do) doesn't lend to discrimination.

Rene Patnode said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I thought of this blog entry when I read a homework essay that was submitted by one of my (Han) students (all errors sic):

“Hui ethnicity has had a special custom for a long time. Hui people have never eaten pork. Because Hui people regard pigs as their forefather, symbol of their own nation. But once my friend is also a Hui ethnicity told me that she was fed up hearing the 'pork' or 'pig' these words, and she didn't eat pork. The reason is very strange. Because she and her relatives thought it's a sickening and disgusting animal. Therefore, they've never touch it. Her idea contradicts the traditional standpoint."

When I read this, my jaw hit the floor, not because of the viewpoint the student espoused in the opening , which I've heard from all too many Han students, but because she goes on to correct the person who is actually Hui.

Mike said...

well... just to update this post...

i just recently found out that the girl i wrote about in this post is an ethnic minority.

Anonymous said...

Reality check..

That girl is probably a pro.

Just the 2 cent of an old Asia hand