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In China, I Became Aware Of My Race

02/04/2015 2:53 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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beautiful shanghai in sunrise,cityscape of pudong skyline

I've never thought about my race before I travelled to China. China has never been a top destination for tourists, but for me it was the land of the unknown that I wanted to discover.

I arrived at Pudong International airport at midnight. The airport looked empty, the passengers from the flight Moscow-Shanghai lined up at the passport control. The officers were very nice to me and wished me a happy stay. Looking forward to a new adventure, I got my luggage and headed towards the exit gate. The minute I pushed my cart with the luggage into the arrival hall, a bunch of cab drivers surrounded me. All were speaking Mandarin simultaneously and overwhelmingly offering their help. I stayed polite and nice to them, trying to explain in English that I didn't need their assistance. But I was shocked when one of the drivers took my hand and pulled me towards the exit! I surely did not expect that kind of behavior which was aggressive and an intrusion of privacy.

On the way from the airport to my friend's place, I tried to make sense of why those cab drivers rushed to me, but not to any other people from the same flight. The answer was clear. I was one of a couple of Europeans, who arrived in Shanghai with me that night. I understood that those cab drivers didn't mean to hurt me or treat me with disrespect; that was the way of making their living. Assuming that white people usually pay dollars and you can easily fool them around, since the majority doesn't speak Mandarin, they hoped for the jackpot fighting for my attention.

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Such was only the beginning of my three-week stay. Being a white woman walking along the busy streets of Shanghai and narrow alleys of smaller southern cities in Sichuan, I've experienced a number of various expressions of white supremacy at almost every corner store, pastry shop, restaurant, and cab. Local people would ask me to take a picture with them, shake my hand, or warmly wish me a Happy New Year in English.

The first days in Shanghai were the most challenging. I couldn't get used to people watching me, pointing at me in the subway, paying me too much attention at every store I walked in. Often times, I was given a free cup of coffee, or a free pastry, or an extra discount, or a special treatment, which was nice, but too exaggerated and with a fake flair. It made me feel uncomfortable and at times embarrassed to accept all these perks, just because my skin is white.

I don't consider myself superior by race. Being white doesn't give me any right to ask for or accept any special treatment. From the minute I arrived, the Chinese labelled me a "laowai" (old foreigner), which from then on predestined my travelling around China. Although, many Europeans are not hesitant to claim their race and indulge the superiority the locals reward them with. To me, it didn't seem right. I didn't feel any special than the Chinese are. When one visits a foreign country, they expect to be treated as one of your own inhabitants. At least, that was the rule I was used to.

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One day, I visited a local food market in Shanghai. Located close to a tourist attraction, Tianzifang, the market seemed to me to be a perfectly safe and curious spot to explore on a rainy day. When I walked in, the market immediately impressed me with its spacious room and bright colors. All sorts of meat and poultry were hanging heads-down from the tall ceilings. I've never seen such a variety of vegetables and greens that a human being can consume. While I wandered amazed around the rows, the salespersons watched every single step of mine, every action I made. I looked back at them silently, questioning in my mind whether or not it's fine for me to be here. Everyone sat frozen with shy smiles on their faces. I can't say they were unwelcoming towards me, it was more about being alert and scared of an "intruder", who obviously didn't belong there.

Looking for explanations of the "special" treatment of white people, the first thought that came into my mind was the good nature of the Chinese. I've always heard about Chinese hospitality to the country's visitors. There is a saying by Confucius "When a friend comes from afar, is that not delightful?" that shaped thousand-years philosophy of a Chinese mind. But the infatuation shown to "laowai" goes beyond a legacy of hospitality. The "white first" philosophy takes root from a blind and sycophantic display of favoring whites based on self-unconfidence and lack of self-esteem. That in turn has been shaped by several decades of history of British rule in the continent.

For many Chinese, the Western civilization represents the best of everything: wealth, modernity, democracy, better living conditions, better everything,. There are hundreds of signs in English everywhere, local people give their children English names, the Chinese like to drive expensive European cars and to wear luxurious brands. Everything that is not Chinese automatically appears to be better. There's nothing wrong with that. Many developing countries, including Middle Eastern, and even some eastern European countries have similar notions. But to consider white people better human beings just because they've come from the West is, by no means, a healthy state of mind.

China has developed greatly for the last fifteen years. From the country with the closed borders, China has become one of the leading economies in the world that gains its power every day. Albite, the country feels confident in the global marketplace and the political arena, its people still have a long way to go to change their perception of themselves: from submitting to the Western civilization based on materialistic betterness to finally realizing how spiritually-rich and strong they are as a nation, that can rarely be seen in the West these days.