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A Graduate in China - Confusing Prejudice with Curiosity

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Living in China prompts a reassessment of national identity. As a 'wài guó rén' 外国人, a foreigner, but literally 'outside person', I am one of many English speakers. But there are also a lot of Russians, Germans, Nigerians and Ghanaians. Most of the English speakers are here to teach; the Russians are here to study Chinese; the Germans work as engineers or in factories; and the Nigerians work in the import and export of clothes.

The Chinese see us all in a number of ways, but first and foremost they are very curious. When I arrived it was difficult to deal with people stopping and staring at you on public transport or in the street. Children would, and still do, chase you chanting 'wài guó rén', and many people video you in the street.

From the back I could quite easily be taken as Chinese. I have dark hair and a medium build, but some of my peers, whom are particularly tall or who have blond hair, are seen as celebrities. In tourist spots we are asked to have pictures taken with young children or families who will remain complete strangers. Later you can search a Chinese social networking site, like Weibo or QQ, type in 'foreigner' and search the location where you were snapped and you will probably find a picture of yourself with comments. It can be invasive, endearing and understanding all at the same time.

I say understanding because many Chinese people have never seen a foreigner. They are simply curious. Those of the older generation, who would have heard from their parents that foreigners could only bring bad things to China, must be even more shocked.

As a foreigner there are some people you should avoid. In poorer areas we are, with justification, seen as being mega rich and are often targets for robberies or scams. It's best not to get involved with other people simply because they don't like the idea of foreigners being in China. Those foreigners who break Chinese law have not helped this attitude. Aside from the fall out from Bo Xilai and Neil Heywood, there have been press reports of a British man attempting to rape a Chinese woman in Beijing, and also of foreigners getting drunk and doing ridiculous things that would never be acceptable in their homelands let alone here. With a negative press comes negative feeling, but many Chinese see foreigners as being here to stay and, as China aspires to be like the West, they feel they must accept foreign influences.

My comments relate only to white foreigners. The feeling towards black people is different again. When I was teaching colours to my six and seven years olds last week, one boy gave the 'African Man' as an example of the colour brown. There is a community near where I live nicknamed 'Chocolate City' because of the number of Africans living there. For the Chinese, the sight of black people is a phenomenon. In the past they knew about white westerners, but the influx of black people in the last few years has truly opened China's eyes.

In Guangzhou they estimated in 2009 that there were around 100,000 Nigerians, Liberians, Cameroonians and Malians in the city. That number increases by 30-40% every year. The migration of Africans to China has happened at the same time as China has been increasing its presence in Africa. There are an estimated one million Chinese workers in Africa and, during the Libyan crisis last year, there were reports that the Chinese were going to borrow a battleship to help their workers escape.

Although the Chinese have settled throughout the world and become important citizens of western countries, the fact that people are now coming to China to do the same surprises the Chinese. I have engaged in conversation with Chinese people who speak good English and they are usually shocked to hear that we are working here. I get the impression that many of these more educated Chinese don't actually like China, they simply have no other place to live.

The number of half-Chinese half-western babies is on the increase and, if their parents choose, these babies can become advertising sensations. The mix is seen as being incredibly beautiful and desirable. Around a third of children on Chinese TV adverts are clearly not the product of two Chinese parents. This summer China will even send its first black athlete to the Olympic games. Ding Hui, nicknamed Xiǎo Hēi 小黑 (little black), is a 21-year-old volleyball player born of a South African father and a Chinese mother. His mother tongue is Mandarin and he has attracted attention from all quarters of Chinese society. He has been lauded for 'the whiteness of his teeth' (often lacking in the Chinese, see my second blog 'Candy Stumped for Dental Care') and the 'athleticism of his genes'. To us this is racial prejudice, but to the Chinese it is just curiosity and amazement.

As more and more Westerners begin settling in China, these extremes will recede. Guangzhou is a big city, by Chinese standards it is even multicultural, so when I travel through China this summer I may even be treated as a visiting celebrity. As with all change in this rapidly developing country, it starts slowly, but it can only accelerate. Eventually the social network pictures and comments will disappear, too.

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