Stand-out memories of Shanghai: Racial discomfort

I’ve lived in Shanghai for a long time. It doesn’t matter exactly how long. But long.

In that time, there have been some memories that stand out among the rest.

Here’s one:

Racial Discomfort

I was in a restaurant with two friends. They were Eurasian – mixed, with a difficult-to-define look. I’m white.

I think it was a Thai restaurant, or at least a general South East Asia type of place.

Anyway, when the waiter came to our table, some kind of subtly toned interplay began.

I couldn’t define his nationality based on looks or accent. He might have been filipino. or Singaporean. Or American, or something. It didn’t really matter, and I didn’t/don’t care. But it became relevant.

His manner was somewhat obsequious – he was eager to be pally.

As a slight digression with related purposes, allow me to explain what it’s like in China. White people get a pretty good deal, socially speaking. Chinese people are generally eager to connect with Western people. It’s modern, it’s hospitable, it’s an attachment to perceived glamour of the West – wine, cheese, golf, coffee, Hollywood movies and sports stars. It is a racial dynamic which exists. Non-white westerners in China get the raw end of the deal. They are less likely to get a job, to find a partner, to feel the same effort at connection from Chinese people.

So. As the obsequious (but generally nice) waiter fussed around the table with menus and place-settings, my friends and I discussed a place we had heard of – a bar called Brown’s.

My friend quickly turned his head to the waiter and asked: “Do you know Brown’s?”

The waiter look slightly surprised for a second, and then said: “I’m white.”

We all took a collective pause, before my friend clarified: “No I mean do you know a bar called Brown’s?”

“Oh, ah yes of course, I think I’ve heard of it”, the waiter somewhat stuttered.

He then left us, and when he was gone we obviously cracked up laughing about the whole thing.

My friend said: “In any case, as if I would just ask him ‘are you brown?’

In that moment, the poor waiter had spoken out his fears and concerns about being a ‘foreigner’ in China, while experiencing none of the frankly racist benefits of being so. Asian-looking non-Chinese people often speak of the frustration of people assuming that they are Chinese — speaking Chinese to them, being frustrated at their non-identikit behaviours that Chinese people expect them to perform, and so on.

Embarassment aside, it was a wonderful moment of unspoken concerns suddenly made vocal, the deep psychology of a complete stranger inadvertantly laid bare.

God bless that man and I can only hope that he has found some form of solace of identity, somewhere in the world.


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Categories: Community, Expat Life


Foreigner in Shanghai


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