Fresh Eyes: Being white in China

0
411

Seth Barham copyby Seth Barham

“Oh, God, I love being white,” one of my favorite Louis CK standup bits begins. Of course, this immediately raises eyebrows in our increasingly politically correct world and many owners of said eyebrows shut down before hearing the unfortunate truth behind the bit. “Let me be clear, by the way,” Louis CK continues. “I’m not saying white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better.”

It seems that a news story confirms this truth every day, whether it’s Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island or Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. being Tased and shot dead after his Life Alert device was mistakenly triggered (yes, this actually happened). I’ve avoided pretty much any persecution remotely similar to this, or the knowledge that it’s still a huge problem, for most of my life.

Rockingham County is about 74 percent white, so I have indeed lived a sheltered existence up until the end of my high school years. I knew of racism and the Civil Rights Movement, but all of my civics teachers covered the uglier parts of American history as just that: history. No one ever mentioned that racism is still a problem in this country. Then again, I guess it’s hard to empathize and escape the apathy that comes prepackaged with such a homogeneous classroom experience.

Then I got a real education (Go Mountaineers!), relocated to China and my protective bubble was promptly burst by the needles of culture shock and being one of 80 foreigners in all of Daqing, a small city (for China) of 3 million people. It’s hard to not draw attention when you’re 6-foot-2, white and have blonde hair and blue eyes. Many of the people here have lived most of their lives never seeing a real, live foreigner in the flesh. The attention can be annoying when all you want to do is walk from Point A to Point B and get some noodles.

That’s only the beginning. While eating said noodles, all eyes remain on you. I’ve learned to stare out into the great beyond (the wall) and ignore them. “Wow, the foreigner can use chopsticks.” “I didn’t know foreigners could eat Chinese food.” “Take a photo for your grandmother.” And yes, many photos are taken, much to the ire of pretty much every expat here. When you agree to the otherwise relatively awesome lifestyle of an expat in China, you must wave goodbye to privacy in public.

But it’s a two-sided coin. My sheltered, white-kid bubble did pop, but something else rushed in to replace it on a massive scale: a new, ridiculously big bubble of white privilege. If I go to a bar or club any given weekend, some guy is guaranteed to buy me a drink. One evening some guy even offered to pay our three very high tabs and invited us to join him and his personal driver at the karaoke bar (read: brothel), his treat. We politely declined.

How is this relevant to Louis CK and trigger-happy cops? While the privilege I experience in China is somewhat annoying but benign at worst or a good evening out and funny to the outside observer at best, America still has a huge problem with race that is no laughing matter. The only humorous part about it is the ridiculous number of politicians and pundits who claim racism is no longer an issue simply because we have a black president.

Boston is only 23 percent black, but 63 percent of police encounters involved African Americans from 2007 to 2010. Many pundits will fall back on the lazy and, um, racist “argument” that these statistics prove that blacks are violent by their very nature. What about the crazy idea that minority neighborhoods are simply patrolled more often than white neighborhoods?

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent voter ID bill is one of the most restrictive elections laws since the Civil Rights era, requiring a photo ID, cutting early voting by a week and eliminating same-day registration. Wow, McCrory sounds like a real patriot who loves democracy. In the last two elections, more than 70 percent of African-American voters cast their ballots early in North Carolina. People of color are also more likely to lack a photo ID (and vote Democratic, by the way). I think he knew what he was doing.

As long as Louis CK is right, my friends and family shouldn’t worry about me. I can deal with the unapologetic staring. But America has a real problem, the problem is racial and it’s a problem that should not have been a problem in 2014, and shouldn’t be in 2015. Please direct more attention to that than the goofy looking guy shouting “Hello!” at me from across the street.

Seth Barham is a world traveler and writer currently doing the English teacher thing in the frozen swamphole that is Daquing, China. When not teaching, he writes about simple living, travel and other fun stuff at the Spartan Wanderer website.