[Nonfiction] 'Death by White Chocolate'

[Nonfiction] 'Death by White Chocolate'
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
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On white privilege in China.

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The realization struck on my very first day in China, when I was 17: during the 14-hour plane trip from New York, I had somehow become a tourist attraction. I’d landed in Beijing the night before, and my host family had decided the way to welcome me to China was a sunrise trip to Tiananmen Square to watch the raising of the flag.

Apart from eating a cucumber and drinking overly sweet green tea from a bottle, I hardly remember anything about that day or Tiananmen itself. But one memory has always stood out as clearly as if it happened yesterday: many, many people wanted either to take my picture or to have their picture taken with me. At first I tried to refuse, but soon I started to get into it, putting a friendly arm around someone’s daughter or copying the peace sign that everyone else seemed to be making in pictures. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t flattered, or that I really minded the picture taking. I’d never been considered exotic in my life and that day I began to understand what it was to feel like a model.

This was back in 2007, pre-Olympics, when foreigner sightings generated more excitement than they do today — particularly for Chinese tourists from outside of Beijing. Yet I am surprised by how often something similar still happens to me, eight years later, almost on a daily basis. Parents want pictures of me with their children. Uber drivers snap selfies with me. And most people want not only to know where I’m from but also to tell me that I am beautiful. I am told this by cab drivers, by teachers at the school where I work. It happens in grocery stores and from both men and women alike, sometimes even from my students. At this point, I’ve almost come to expect it, and I’m ready with my standard answer of, “No, no, you’re too kind.”

Let’s clear one thing up right away: this phenomenon is limited to my life in China. I am no Kate Moss. I would describe myself as attractive, but not in a particularly striking way. I have wavy light brown hair and blue eyes, and I am of average height. I think that sometimes when they say “beautiful” what people really mean is “different”— indeed, I do not look Chinese. But there’s something else at play, too: it’s that I’m extremely pale, one of those people for whom the beach, with its endless applications of sunscreen, is more work than fun. White skin is prized in China to the extent that most skin lotions contain bleach — an ideal that my American self (let’s celebrate everyone!) will never understand. As a boyfriend once put it to me, after two women had approached us in a restaurant to comment on my looks, “Of course I think you’re beautiful. But to Chinese people, because you’re so pale, it’s like you’re especially beautiful.”

I wish I could say that this attention was limited to aesthetics. But do we treat people differently when we find them beautiful? I still remember what my tenth grade English teacher had to say about this when we read "The Great Gatsby": "Everyone likes Daisy because ‘she’s so pretty.’ But she’s horrible!” Of course, I don’t want to be horrible.

But last year, when I was living in Beijing, I went over to China Unicom during lunch one day to figure out why my cellphone wasn’t working. My spoken Chinese is pretty decent but reading characters is much harder for me, and I struggle to read the texts from my cell phone company. The store was packed (totally typical at lunch time), so I took a shortcut. I found a frazzled employee and asked if he would read the texts and diagnose the situation. I then told him that I couldn’t use the machine that he directed me to (it was in Chinese). The man ended up cutting about twenty people in front of me in the line in order to do it for me. When I got back to the office a mere fifteen minutes later, my friend C, who is Chinese by birth but moved to America at the age of nine, was surprised to see me so soon. He’d warned me that given the lunchtime crowds it could take a while. “How did you get back so fast?” he asked me. “Oh, they helped me,” I said vaguely. C shot me a dark look. “You mean you asked them to do it for you.” Well, when you got down to it, yes. “I hate that,” he said. “Hate what?” I was confused. If anything, I thought he’d be pleased with the success of my little adventure. After all, he and I spent quite a lot of time complaining about the helplessness of our non-Chinese speaking colleagues when it came to dealing with things like cellphones and train tickets. “They just let you cut the line because you’re white,” he said, shaking his head in disgust and turning back to his computer. “And you can even speak Chinese! You could have done it yourself. That’s so unfair.”

He’s right about that, of course. I was given special treatment because I am a foreigner, and white at that. To me, the concept of indulgence has always been laced with caution — indulgent is something you’d only want in small quantities. Chocolate that’s delicious in the first two bites, and nauseating by the fifth. Perfume that smells great in the store but makes your head spin after three hours of wearing it. But in the best and worst sense of the word, my existence in China, as an expat, is in many ways an indulgence. I chose to come here, and I make enough money to have enjoy nice things here. I feel safe here. And much of the time, I am granted special treatment based on my looks. Many, many things are made easier for me here. If I don’t want to write down my order in a restaurant, the waitress will write it down for me. Could I take the time to look up the characters on my phone and write them down myself? Of course. But why would I do that when it’s so much easier to ask the waitress to do it? Why would I try and call the airline on the phone when it’s so much easier to say, Oh my Chinese isn’t good, can you do it for me? Because here’s what happens when you are treated vaguely like royalty: you start to think that the regular rules don’t apply to you. It is indulgence gone truly rancid.

The problem, of course, is that I didn’t fall in this trap right away. I only became truly aware of how much I was abusing my whiteness one day when I decided that I didn’t need to show my ticket to an airport employee as I left the baggage claim so she could check my luggage stub, which is a requirement for all passengers. First I pretended that I didn’t hear her and then that I didn’t speak Chinese. I was eventually apprehended by a guard and forced to take my slip out of my pocket and show it to the very disgruntled employee, a woman of about my mother’s age. As I left, she shook her head disapprovingly and said aloud, “Can you believe that? She thought she didn’t have to follow the rules just because she’s a foreigner!” It was, unfortunately, a completely accurate assessment of the situation. I’m not sure which is worse—white privilege as an invisible backpack, which you constantly abuse unknowingly, or white privilege that you are far too aware of and use to your advantage. The one thing I do know is that being considered beautiful should never be license to behave like an asshole. Look no further than Daisy Buchanan.

Perhaps I feel that I “need” my privilege. The fact is that most of the time China is difficult for foreigners to navigate. Nobody “picks up” Chinese. Even reading a newspaper requires years and years of intense studying. Things happen every day here that are hard for me to understand, from the way my Chinese colleagues approach problem solving to paying my electricity bill, or figuring out which line I should stand in at the train station. Since I read at an elementary level, these things seem even harder to navigate — and I know that for those with less Chinese, it’s even more difficult. Sometimes I feel that I cave to the temptation of getting special treatment despite my best intentions because without it, I often feel like I’m walking around blindfolded. I think I can make out shapes and outlines through the blindfold, but half the time I’m not sure if what I’m seeing is real or just the insides my eyelids. Being a foreigner in China is never boring, sure. But exhausting? Always.

I’m not sure that there is any way to let go of this indulgence completely. But perhaps the most I can do is try to follow the rules, try not to cut lines that I don’t need to cut, push myself to write the characters and buy my own train tickets. The history playing itself out in America precedes us: we should all know better by now than to claim ignorance of how our skin color changes things. But most of all, I think I’m afraid of what will happen to me if I don’t. It’s not that different from fancy chocolate, after all: you don’t want to get sick.

This originally appeared at the Anthill, a writers’ colony of stories from China, and is reposted with permission.

TNL Editor: Edward White

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