White Ghosts

12 Jan

One day about twelve years ago I was walking across an overpass in downtown Chengdu, when a small child saw me and shouted out “lao wai!” (old foreigner) His father looked at me and I expected him to correct the child, as parents often do, and tell him to call me “ayi” (aunty). Instead he leaned down, pointed at me, and said, “yes, that’s right, look at the lao wai’s big nose!”

I haven’t been called a big nose for a long time and I am no longer surrounded by crowds of curious onlookers as I used to be when I first travelled in China in the 1980s, but I still hear the word “foreigner” at least once a day, especially from children. And when I am out with my own children, people of all ages call out “xiao lao wai!” (little old foreigner) or “yang wawa!” (foreign baby). They all agree that the yang wawa are extremely cute. One woman stood next to us in the wet market and puzzled aloud how it is that foreign babies can be so cute, but all grow up to be so ugly.

I often wonder if I feel more foreign here than a Chinese person feels in a western country. I wonder if Chinese visitors to London feel unwelcome when no-one asks them friendly questions about how they like the food or tells them how well they speak English. London and New York, the western cities I am most familiar with, are thronged with people from every part of the world, and no-one comments on your race or even your language ability. People might ask where you come from, but no-one would ever call you a foreigner. The US and Canada, Australia, the UK and many European countries have such diverse populations that being British or American or whatever nationality is not generally associated with the colour of your skin, at least not in urban centres.

But in China you cannot be Chinese unless you are 100 percent Chinese. Recently I had a conversation with a taxi driver on this subject. He said he had noticed there are a lot more mixed marriages between Chinese and foreigners these days, and he asked me whether the children of these marriages are Chinese or not. I said it depends on many factors, such as where they grow up, where they go to school, what language they speak. He shook his head,

“No that’s not it. Are they Chinese or do they have the nationality of their other parent?”

I said that depends on what passport their parents get for them. Because the Chinese government won’t allow duel nationality, their parents have to choose whether they have a Chinese passport, or the other one. He shook his head again.

“No, I don’t mean language or passport or any of that. I mean, are they Chinese or are they not?”

Finally I got it. It was a rhetorical question, with only one possible answer.

“They are not Chinese,” I said.

He nodded. “Right. They are not. They are hun-xuer (mixed blood). They cannot be Chinese.”

This is a concept I struggle with. Sometimes it feels like the elephant in the room of our peaceful, happy-go-lucky life here; an elephant that could potentially turn nasty. I know there are some fascinating anthropological studies about the construction of race and nationhood in China, but as I haven’t read them I am left puzzling over the tiny patches of the elephant that I can see. What I do know is that a random global event, such as the bombing of a Chinese embassy or the reaction of a London crowd to China’s Olympic torch, can ignite powerful nationalistic emotions across China, emotions that see me and my family as part of the problem because we are foreigners.

Once at Chengdu airport a man behind us in the queue touched my son’s hair. When my son turned around and saw it was a stranger touching him, he backed away and pulled a face. The man made a comment in Sichuan dialect that I didn’t understand, so the friend who was with me translated.

“He said, you westerners have humiliated us for hundreds of years and now your children are still humiliating us.” I must have looked shocked because my friend rushed to reassure me.

“Oh don’t worry, we don’t hate you. It’s the Japanese we really hate.”

It could take hundreds of pages to unpack that particular exchange.

No matter how long I live here, how well I learn to speak Chinese or eat with chopsticks or enjoy spicy food, no matter how many good friends I make, no matter if I marry a Chinese man and have hun-xuer children (too late for me to do this now, but I know many people who have), I will always be a lao-wai, a white ghost, a foreigner. A Chinese person living in the UK or the US must feel foreign too, must struggle with homesickness and cultural displacement and must often wonder if it’s worth it and why not just go home. But at least they know that if they choose to stay, their child will grow up to belong in their new country. My children won’t, not even my son who has never lived anywhere else and speaks Chinese with perfect tones. They’re not even hun-xuer, they’re just plain lao-wai. I worry about the impact it has on them, to be living in a world where they are outsiders. My older son is already clear in his mind that he would prefer to live in England or the USA where everyone speaks English and no-one stares at him on the street, or runs up to take his photo and tell him how cute he is. He has heard so many times what an advantage it will be for him later in life to speak Chinese, that he just ignores it now, and it does nothing to motivate him to study the language.

But perhaps being called foreign doesn’t have to be negative. After all it is a fact of life, akin to how Chinese people call a fat person a fat person, in an upfront way that western cultures avoid. We call someone fat behind their back but not to their faces. Similarly we don’t call people foreign to their faces but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same feelings about outsiders. London and New York, Sydney and Paris welcome people of all races. Anyone can walk the streets of those cities without being noticed or commented on, as I suppose they can these days in Beijing and Shanghai. But once they move out into the smaller towns and the countryside, there people will start to notice and comment on their being foreign. Not to their face of course, but behind their back. Jackie Kay writes movingly about growing up 100% Scottish of Nigerian extraction in her memoir Red Dust Road. A Chinese friend told me that he loved New York because no-one paid any attention to him there, whereas in the Ohio town where he studied, shop-keepers struggled to understand him and he felt like a foreigner.

In multi-cultural western societies, ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity are of course also vast and complex issues, but we deal with them differently. In the west we are shy of calling people foreign to their faces, even as we struggle openly day by day with issues thrown up by the cultural melting-pot, in the press, in schools and in communities. Whereas in China, foreigners are openly labeled as such, with a prevailing attitude of friendly welcome, but with clear boundaries attached: no messy questions of integration and multi-culturalism. In both cases, when questions of national pride emerge, sinister undercurrents rise to the surface and play out in ways that are hard to fathom. For me, they are harder to fathom here than they are at home.

I wrestle with the choice I have made, to live in a country where I will always be a foreigner, but after all it is my choice. Some days I’m OK with it and others I’m not, but surprisingly I don’t mind being called a big nose. It reminds me of the time I went rafting with a group of my students in Taiwan shortly after a typhoon, and our raft capsized in the rapids and catapulted us all into the churning water. I heard the lifeguards shouting in Taiwanese, “get the big nose!” and I was the first to be hauled out of the water and dumped back on the boat. My students teased me that I was the easiest to find because my nose stuck so far out of the water. They also told me that I spoke in perfect Chinese for at least an hour afterwards. Apparently the cold and shock activated some dormant neurons in my brain and, huddling on the plastic raft with my friends, I experienced a brief period of total fluency, the closest I will ever come to being Chinese.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 7 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

10 Responses to “White Ghosts”

  1. shardsofchina January 12, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Excellent piece, it really captures the sense of being an alien here. For me I’ve not been looking to submerge myself in China, it’s my 4th host country over the last 7 years. But I know that in the Gulf I was always well accepted in a way I’ll never be here – I’m OK with that, my wife’s Chinese and she loves being here and accepts that it’s a temporary deal until something new comes along.

    I’ll be following your blog with interest from now on, thank you for sharing.

  2. Heidi Nevin January 12, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    This is a fantastic and fascinating post. Thank you so much. I can relate to everything you say soooooooooooooooo well. It makes me really want to get together in person and have a heart-to-heart! Perhaps we can find a time to meet. I detest being called “lao wai” unless I’m in a very sunny mood (rare). Loved your story about getting rescued after your raft flipped–hahaha! You raise so many interesting points in this post–I’m going to reread it many more times. Thanks again.

    • catplatt January 19, 2012 at 7:29 am #

      Thanks Heidi, I would love to meet you too. Are you around over the holiday? We are here if you would like to bring your kids over for tea and to play with someone else’s toys!

  3. Marion January 13, 2012 at 3:55 am #

    Maro sent me the link to your blog, and now I miss and don’t miss living overseas. I’m a Canadian, but my heritage is Hong Kong Chinese. My Caucasian Canadian husband & I lived and worked in China & Taiwan on and off over the last several years, and we understand where you’re coming from. He hated being differentiated for his looks, and wanted so badly to fit in. I, on the other hand, wanted to be anything but “Chinese-looking” as my Hong Kong-Canadian-married to a white Canadian-Mandarin-as-a-second-language-mother of huen xue kids-ness made me not 100% Chinese either, and often made me more of a target for insulting comments. It was definitely much better in Taiwan than in China, but these types of in-your-face comments that you mentioned persisted.

    Thanks for your post and this blog! Great idea. Can’t wait to keep reading it.

    • catplatt January 19, 2012 at 7:36 am #

      Hi Marion, yes I can imagine from the opposite perspective it must be frustrating if people assume you are local when you are not, and think you should be able to speak the language perfectly when you don’t. It’s not that I really want to be Chinese, or imagine that I ever can fit in, more that I just get tired of being called a foreigner all the time, and especially for my kids. All part of the complex mix of rewards and frustrations of living here….

  4. natasha devalia January 13, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Hey Cat, thanks for sharing that post with us.

    Even close friends here in Chengdu still refer to me as their foreign friend. People everywhere call my children “wai guo peng you,” and “yang wawa”! I didn’t know the latter referred to foreign kids. My ayi couldn’t really give me an understandable translation of it?? Just this afternoon I heard it at least 5 times.

    When I first arrived in China, I was struck by how parents and grandparents pointed at me and explained to little kids that I am a foreigner!

    Personally it’s easier for me since there is no way we’d be considered anything but foreign, I don’t even try to belong. My ties here are weak though, probably partly for that reason. (There is much I truly love and appreciate about being here though,mainly a couple of very close people)

    But I understand that after being as tied to China as you have been for as long, and even though your are fluent in Chinese, and your children have only ever lived here, neither you nor they will ever be accepted as Chinese. There’s a lot of grey.

    Love the rafting story! A few of my friends have been told that their noses are big. One pregnant friend told me that during an ultra sound here. the nurses were gossiping about her baby’s big nose!

    Thanks for your lovely, thought provoking text Cat!

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Where are you from, mum?” « Multicultural Mothering - August 26, 2012

    […] Other than their heritage, part of it depends on where we live and what interests them. If we lived in Canada say, in time we could be considered Canadian, where in China we are always going to be lao wai or foreigners. But that’s a topic for another post, and Catherine Platt talked about that poignantly in her post White Ghosts. […]

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