Voices: An American in China during the pandemic – Let’s not lose more of our humanity

Voices: An American in China during the pandemic – Let’s not lose more of our humanity
Source: Anthony Wallace/Contributor/Getty Images

Both foreigners in China and Chinese and Asians across the world, have faced increased discrimination during COVID-19. It is a worrying symptom of a pandemic that has attacked human life and human dignity.

By March this year, China’s epidemic prevention and control effort had successfully contained domestic COVID-19 outbreaks. It then shifted to managing imported cases. Foreigners were now perceived as potential virus carriers and started to experience prejudice and at times racism. This gained international coverage when reports emerged in April of Black and African people in the southern city of Guangzhou being evicted from their apartments and denied service at hotels. In one Reuters report, a 19-year old African student in Guangzhou was forced to sleep on the street until he finally found a hotel that would accept him.

I am a white male English teacher in China and my experiences with prejudice pale in comparison to those above. When I was traveling in China this spring, I was only occasionally refused service by lodging establishments and I was never forced to sleep on the street. Three times I was refused a bus ticket. On one such occasion a ticket clerk in Lijiang, Yunnan province said it wasn’t the length of my stay in China that mattered but my face. I left the station flustered and saddened by my first encounter with a discriminatory policy.

But “discrimination” is a strong word. Lijiang’s temporary moratorium on bus ticket sales to foreigners may not have been the result of outright prejudice. It was more likely an overreaction by local-level authorities to unclear official guidelines on how to deal with foreigners at that time. Such overly cautious decision-making is common in China, as the lower ranks are loathe to upset their superiors.

Regardless of the exact reasons for apparently prejudiced policies in China during COVID-19, it is clear this is a watershed moment for foreigners in the country. In my ten years here, my white skin has given me privilege – whether I liked it or not. Now that may no longer be the case.

My friend Ellie, a social studies teacher at an international school in Beijing, said she has also felt a shift. She has been in China since well before COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan last December and has also faced prejudice.

“I’ve experienced various scenarios that have been upsetting and made me realize that being a foreigner isn’t really ‘cool’ anymore here,” she said over WeChat, China’s answer to WhatsApp.

A number of Ellie’s experiences reflect my own. For instance, it is now common to see unmasked locals put their masks on when I am passing them on the street, even when I am wearing a mask. In 2011, passerby were more likely to ask me for a photo. At times, prejudice toward foreigners during COVID-19 has been quite vocal.

Early this spring, a xenophobic comic on WeChat called “Yang Laji” made waves in our expat community. “Yang laji,” or “seaborne waste,” is a term for the various waste products China purchases from other countries for recycling and other purposes. This imported waste has become a source of controversy, because it often accumulates and damages communities and the environment. In the comic, “seaborne waste” is a metaphor for bad-egg foreigners polluting Chinese society with their irresponsible behavior.

The comic goes as such: Two hazmat-clad workers are classifying specimens of no-good foreigners into several bins. In a series of scenarios, one worker drags in a white or Black male foreigner for disposal. He explains their transgression to his supervisor, whether it be breaking quarantine to go running, refusing to wear a facial covering, or chasing after Chinese girls. The foreigner’s response is usually a plea like “I only wanted to exercise my right to fresh air!” The supervisor then shouts a “That’ll teach you to…!” before kicking them into one of the bins.

china Yang laji seaborne waste

Some of my foreign friends were dismayed by the post, others took it with a grain of salt. I joked that I was proud of my maritime heritage, but I admit it touched a nerve. As of late August, “Yang Laji” has been blocked on WeChat because it was reported as violating network regulations.

The “Yang Laji” comic was disturbing, but it does not in my view represent the views of most Chinese. Broadly, it can be seen as a valve release for nationalistic Chinese frustrated with high-paid foreign experts and scholarship students who flout the country’s rules and abuse the privileges they have. I can relate to this because I have unfortunately been one of these nightmare foreigners.

The comic can also be interpreted as a backlash against foreigners who disobey social distancing guidelines or who refuse to wear facial coverings, which are highly valued in China as a principle way to protect against COVID-19.

It could even be tied to a backlash against a string of sexual assault cases involving African students on Chinese college campuses, as well as online uproar last summer over Shandong University’s controversial “Buddy Program,” which individually paired 47 foreign students with three Chinese students. Most of these buddy students were female.

My friend Alan (pseudonym), a Tianjin native who works extensively with expats in the Hong Kong education sector, compared “Yang Laji”’s rhetoric to that expressed by bigoted Donald Trump supporters wary of immigrants and eager to put America first.

One April evening in Lijiang I explained the increasing anti-foreigner prejudice I was sensing to my Chinese-Singaporean host Kenny. “That is very ironic,” he said, grinning. He could have been referring to the intense discrimination that overseas Chinese and Asian people have faced throughout the pandemic. Or he could have meant the preferential treatment foreigners have enjoyed in China since the 19th century. I didn’t ask, as he would have been right in either sense.

It may be necessary to give a little more background to race relations in China. The country only opened up to the rest of the world relatively recently and many Chinese have never met a foreigner in person. Such was the case on my recent overnight train to Kunming, when I met Wang Ying, a 20-year old health major from rural Yunnan province who was enthusiastic to converse with a foreigner for the first time.

Other people in China may be less outgoing than Wang but no less friendly. And some unaggressive locals may stare at foreigners in public. I know dozens of foreigners who are disturbed by this behavior – myself included. But what is rude in one culture might not necessarily be so in another. In China, staring is not so much an expression of creepiness or aggression as it is interest or surprise.

And locals also get stared at. “I have a few straight-up staring stories,” said my friend Yavis, an architect from Guangzhou. She said she has been made uncomfortable by intense stares from both men and women on the subway and in other public places.

These brief explanations do not excuse rude or prejudiced behavior, but having a more nuanced view of Chinese culture could be more constructive than simply labeling Chinese as racists.

When interacting with people in China today, it is also important to understand the deep connections between modern Chinese culture and its historical roots. For millennia, China was the cultural, political and military powerhouse of East Asia. Within its dominion were breathtaking mountain ranges, unforgiving deserts, lush tropical forests and dozens of ethnic minorities. It was and is a geographical microcosm of the wider world. The Chinese culture is so persistent that its written language is the oldest continuing logographic writing system in the world.

Considering China’s proud cultural heritage, it may be easier to understand why Chinese might think of themselves as different among the peoples of the world. That said, Chinese civilization has a respectable track record of tolerating peoples of various religions, skin colors and ethnicities. Notable exceptions include current anti-Black and African prejudice in the country and the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. But over the long term, China has arguably done a better job of peacefully dealing with ethnic minorities than its counterparts in Europe and North America.

We may never know the full extent of prejudice against foreigners in China during COVID-19. Nor are we likely to understand the myriad ways that Chinese and Asians in other countries have been unjustly treated during this period. Any of the offensive behavior I have described in China can easily be matched or exceeded by instances of racial aggression in the United States. A prominent example would be the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the continued slaying of innocent African Americans on the nation’s streets. And let’s not forget that many Asian Americans during COVID-19 fear going out in public due to racial scapegoating and violence that have happened on a scale not seen since the 19th century.

I don’t mean here to engage in a blame game of who is worse to whom. Improving race relations is not a competition but a joint effort. The fact that the xenophobic “Seaborne Waste” comic was deleted from WeChat suggests that the network, its users and the Chinese government do not condone such bigoted attacks. Searching out points of common ground, as small as they may be, is much more productive than feeding the growing prejudice and scapegoating that have become as tragic as the pandemic itself.

This Voices story was written by Jonas Kelsch. Yavis Cheung, Howard Huxter and Alex Wang contributed to this piece. Jonas is a college English teacher who currently lives in Zhuhai, China.

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