Once a wàiguórén, always a wàiguórén
We’re so used to hearing it that I didn’t think about it at the time: my ESL student from Beijing was using wàiguórén (外国人; foreigner) to refer to the white people in a Vancouver shopping mall this weekend. Then while we were shopping for Chinese DVDs a group of college-age Chinese girls passed us. One of them said in Mandarin to her friends, “Those foreigners are speaking Chinese!” I’d heard that Mainlanders sometimes talk this way even when they’re the foreigners, but this was my first time hearing it for myself.
Is there a term for this? “Middle Kingdom syndrome” or something? These people talk like they already own the whole world! ;)
One time the retired guys on the neighbourhood bike repair corner stopped me and Jessica to have a discussion about our respective colours: “She’s white, and we’re yellow, but what are you?” (I’m a white guy who was once mistaken for an Indo-Canadian.)
When Mainlanders call themselves ‘yellow’ the meaning has several connotations: the ‘yellow earth’, ‘yellow emperor’, Yellow River, yellow skin; China and Chinese are ‘yellow’ but not in the same way as the older, racist American ‘yellow’.
Whites are stronger, African Americans are faster, Africans more energy-efficient
Last week a Chinese guy we know here in Vancouver matter-of-factly unpacked his theory about the differences between races: whites are bigger and stronger than Chinese, but African Americans have stronger joints and that’s why they’re faster than whites and Chinese. Africans are skinnier and can live on less food. Chinese generally have weaker constitutions than everyone else.
Of course some of the ways Mainlanders can treat outsiders provokes my culture stress, and “racist” is occasionally an accurate description of some commonly heard conversation. But I love the way people sometimes discuss perceived racial differences (or any topic considered sensitive in the West) in that bluntly Chinese matter-of-fact way without malice and with zero regard for Western political correctness. It makes me chuckle at both our cultures. Talk that’s totally innocent in China is a cultural sin where I grew up, and using it can be a total gas for people like me from the socially liberal West Coast.
Anyone else experience funny Chinese racial talk?