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A Minority in the Midst of Millions

By Jason Harper (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2011-05-13 17:29
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Throughout my life I've been lucky to have met many people and become friends with folks of different address numbers, various house colors, kids and grown-ups, people who had big, scary cats or fat, fluffy dogs. I tend to gravitate toward folks who are nice, kind, gentle, smart, fun, funny, etc. and avoid the rest. For whatever reason, most of these friends just happen to be "minorities" (according to modern American prejudiced classifications) and are often treated poorly because of it. All the things they've told me about the nasty looks, unequal treatment, and the outright discrimination they suffer on a daily basis appalled and enraged me, but I could never fully understand it or even do anything about it; I could only listen to their stories and fume over reasons I could not comprehend and incidences I didn't want to accept. I couldn't grasp the gravity of their encounters because I'd never really experienced anything like it for myself -- no one had ever treated me in such a callous, ignorant, racist way in my entire life.

Until I went to China.

A Minority in the Midst of Millions
Jason Harper [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn] 

I teach EFL Composition and Research Writing at an international university south of a city called Zhengzhou in Central China's Henan province. Over my year and a half there, I have experienced discrimination time and time again. After being obscenely overcharged while dining at restaurants, getting deliberately ignored by taxi cabs, being aggressively pushed aside while waiting in line, getting denied rooms at hotels, or finding myself suffering sneers, snickers, and stares while walking in public with my Chinese girlfriend Sparrow, I've come to realize what it feels like to be a minority and to be discriminated against.

I was very excited to move to China for many reasons, and one of them was that I'd be able to have a diet strictly of real Chinese food. Not like the cheap buffets or American-Chinese restaurant fare consisting of sloppily prepared, tasteless, and often misspelled things like "kung pow chicken" or "General Tsao's Beef or Puck" -- but a diet of dishes prepared from recipes centuries old, colloquial cuisines cooked in mom-and-pop shops, and exotic street food freshly fried then served from carts parked next to rusty, rickety rickshaws.

Upon first arrival, I eagerly patronized the street vendors and non-tourist restaurants as often as possible. Most menus were in Chinese, and since I'd not yet learned how to recognize 宫保鸡丁, the characters for gōngbǎo jīdīng (Kung Pao Chicken), I'd occasionally find a place that had a menu with English subtitles, mostly in bigger cities like Beijing. I started out just going out to eat alone, as I didn't know many people at first, and had a few rather interesting dining experiences eating things after solely relying on the menus' translations, not always sure what the dishes were. But the first time that I'd gone out to eat with some new Chinese "minority" (wink-wink) friends I'd invited to dine with me, they asked the nǚ-fúwùyuán for a Chinese-language menu. When reading over and comparing dinner items of interest, I noticed that the prices on my English-translated menu were twice as high, and sometimes ten times higher, than the prices on the Chinese menus for the same food. To my astonishment, I would later find that restaurant after restaurant in China increased English-menu prices, a very common practice that would be reprimanded and reported to authorities in the US.

When complaining about it, I was told that "This practice is common," by Jon Wei Wei, a student from my writing class. "Keep your vigilance; you are a foreigner. You are a target."

As I became familiar with the fantastic food, I also became familiar with the economy and the going rate for many things. A 600ml bottle of Coca-Cola is 2.5 RMB (about 36 cents ); a dinner including a medium-sized bowl of potato noodles with bits of beef and a variety of vegetables, two pieces of shāobing , and a bottle of jasmine tea costs 3.5, 0.5, and 2.5 RMB respectively, or 6.5 RMB total, which amounts to just $0.95 for a big, filling, and delicious dinner out. A haircut at most places in my city costs 5 to 10 RMB ($0.73 - $1.46), which includes a scalp massage, then a wash, a cut, a wash again, then drying and styling. Last winter I bought five Ralph Lauren oxford shirts (priced in the US around $100 each) for $40 total, and later flew roundtrip (business class) to Shanghai for spring break at a cost of just $80.

But I had to learn these differences over time and object vehemently if there ever was a problem with a price. Before I got a grip on the "system," I was often overcharged for all of these things (and many others). Why? Because I'm "a foreigner." I am, as Wei Wei warned, a target.

Targets are also avoided. Empty taxis often pass by me, even during the day, even in big cities (especially in big cities), even if I flash a charming smile, put on a sad, lost, puppy-dog face, or wildly wave money in the air to try to get their attention. I sometimes shout or go out and actually stand in the middle of the road when I'm in a hurry. Then, every once in a while, a taxi finally pulls over … only to allow a Chinese person to get in.

One evening, after an education conference in Zhengzhou, two other American males and I tried to hail a cab. We were all wearing traditional, ethnic-typical symposium attire: button shirts with neck ties, trousers, navy blue blazers, and our brand new Ralph Lauren oxford shirts… but we simply could not get a cab. After over an hour and with dusk overtaking the cityscape, a kind-hearted cabbie finally stopped to pick us up. This also happened in Shanghai, and when I finally got one, the guy who picked me up (he spoke English) explained that I had to wait so long to get a ride because I am a foreigner.

Waiting in lines there is a nightmare, even for the populace. This is well known. But as a foreigner, I'm consistently nudged, wedged, jostled around, ducked, dodged, flanked, then abruptly pushed or passed on by. I remember waiting in line at a subway stop in Beijing, and a woman older than my grandmother shoved me aside to get on the train ahead of me. My ribs burst into bright pain as if I'd been hockey-checked. When push comes to shove, foreigners, or Wàiguórén ("Outside-Country People"), are often considered as annoyances.

Hotel rooms are cheap relative to US economy (a 5-star, full-service hotel in Zhengzhou costs less than $90 per night, whereas a night in Wichita's Motel 6 on Webb Road costs $37.79 , about half as much, and the Wichita Hyatt costs $165+ ). But when a Chinese friend books a room, it costs dozens or even much much less. What's more, some hotels in China will flat out not allow me to reserve a room, even if I offer my passport and Resident Expert Permit as identification. If they finally do agree to allow me to stay, they unabashedly charge me more money and offer an apology for the "inconvenience of the higher price" (yet never changing it), then collect my cash with a smile.

Before leaving the States, a former professor offered the usual advice about culture shock, language barriers, undrinkable water, unfamiliar foods, treacherous transportation, and even underground earthquakes… all of these were things I already knew a little about and therefore could anticipate -- anyone who has traveled abroad knows about such things and could expect many more. He also told me he had spent some time in China a few years back, then mentioned that he often got stared at when he was here. Not just started at, but just plain ogled. Dr. DeFrain went on to say that I'd probably have my photo taken (voluntarily or not) by the locals countless times. I didn't believe him, at the time, but after I'd finished my first month in the land of the Great Wall, I'd been photographed or video-recorded with cell phones or digital cameras as if I were a Beatle. Outside-Country People tend to draw attention, often unwanted.

This unwanted attention has also has affected the people around me. Whenever walking out in public with my friend Sparrow, we are the object of stares, glares, jibs, jabs, jibes, and sneers every time. She silently suffers an array of hurtful, disapproving looks and sometimes outright diatribes that are lost on me by way of my poor spoken-language comprehension, but certainly clear to me nevertheless. I read their faces and see it in their eyes -- as well as in Sparrow's -- whenever she and I are out in public together.

It's dreadful; it's sad; it's infuriating.

Sparrow quietly endures this, never telling me what they are saying, never explaining why they say anything (even though I know), and never showing or telling me how she feels about it all. She puts up with this wordlessly, but it becomes … pressure … that slowly builds and brews, just as a pending earthquake's pressure increases and swells between the Earth's tectonic plates, all mostly unnoticeable to the naked eye, all happening quietly and dangerously under the surface. On the surface, she feigns tolerance, patience, and diplomacy.

Yet powerful pressure lies beneath, a dormant but imminent earthquake of immense magnitude, its tectonic plates grinding and constant strain amassing, all of which could transform into a catastrophic upheaval that surely could fatally crush our relationship. Our "quake" lies languidly underneath our "earth" -- the outside, public, city sidewalks -- that we dare tread upon, a seismic disaster fueled by a monster looming closer and closer with each footstep we take every time we venture out among her fellow Chinese, her kindred Middle Kingdom People, the Zhōngguórén .

To try to relieve some of this strain and to show I know about these worries and am aware of what I think she feels, I often ask her if she wants to talk about it (a very American thing to do), but she just purses her lips, steels her eyes, gently sighs, then forces a wan smile and tells me to ignore it, to forget about it, that it doesn't matter, that's everything is gonna be okay (a very Chinese thing to do). But it does matter to me, I know it matters to Sparrow, and it's very clear that it matters to the people here, too.

I often miss my "minority" friends back in America, the folks who are nice, kind, gentle, smart, fun, and funny. I think of the stories they've told me about the nasty looks, the unequal treatment, and the outright discrimination they've suffered on a daily basis, and it still enrages me. And although I feel I still don't fully understand their plights back home in 美国, I can now feel ready try to grasp the gravity of their encounters, because I've now experienced what being a minority is like for myself.

I am a foreigner in China and will always be; of course I'm viewed as a minority in the midst of millions. Minority. Is it a worthless word, a meaningless word; a word of cold classification and prejudicial power? If I choose to continue living in China, I must comprehend and accept the fact that I'm often going to be overcharged, rejected by taxis, shoved around in lines, refused a stay in hotel rooms, and sometimes the subject of racial scorn. I am a minority there. What else should an Outside-Country Person expect? If I decide to stay in China, I will have to accept this minority classification as part of my life, find strength in my friends' experiences, and hope that I could cull, keep, and cherish some kind of support from a Zhōngguórén like Sparrow.

But within four months after we first met, I found that I must face my fate alone for the time being. After quietly enduring all the pressure she could tolerate and after defending me, herself, and us for so long, Sparrow's fortitude finally broke. The unmentionable "tectonic" tension building between our two "faults" -- of her being Chinese and me being Wàiguórén -- became too much for her to take. Sparrow has flown away, freeing herself from the prejudice that my minority status carries with me, and thus relieving all the pressure she'd been quietly bearing so bravely. I will miss her deeply; the shaking aftershocks I feel every day in the wake of her absence have not yet stilled, and I cannot help but feel that the fault that lay beneath the rupture of our relationship was mine.

Jason Harper is currently living and teaching academic writing as a visiting Fort Hays State University faculty member at Sias International University in Xinzheng, China.

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