Domestic Affairs

'White-first' mentality still haunts many in China

By Huang Xiangyang (
Updated: 2010-06-25 17:06
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I have always been amazed and baffled by the infatuation shown by some of my fellow countrymen to foreigners, Caucasians to be exact. It has nothing to do with the tradition of an ancient civilization that advocates good treatment of visitors, as reflected in the Confucian saying: "Isn't it a great pleasure to have friends visiting from afar?" No. It is a kind of blind, ingratiating display of favor toward whites based on self-debasement and lack of self-esteem that seems to defy all logic.

During my college years in Shanghai, each time I went to a small restaurant near campus with one of my friends, who happened to be American (we were language partners), I felt like attending an extra-curriculum course on "super national treatment." A waitress would always escort us to a cleaner table, scrub it forcefully with a cleaning rag, and shower my white friend with all the heartwarming greeting words before taking his order. A simple reply of "xie xie" would draw oohs and aahs for his "excellent command" of Chinese, while most of the time I was left unattended as if I were wearing an "invisibility cloak."

That was nearly 20 years ago, not long after China started to open up to the outside world, when most Chinese did not have a chance a see a foreigner in real life. Years later, some of my American friends told me excitedly about their wonderful experience traveling in China, and how, at tourist sites in Beijing or some other big cities, some Chinese apparently from less developed parts of the country asked to take photos with them. I still interpreted such acts of excessive interest in foreigners as a display of either curiosity or hospitality our nation is said to be famous for.

As the country's economic prowess grows and more and more foreigners flock to China for travel, study and work, one would expect the Chinese people to treat their foreign counterparts more naturally as equal human beings. But in reality, the trend of fawning over foreigners sees no signs of abating. Chinese-made products must have a foreign-sounding name, or have to be liked by foreigners, to be better. My stomach squirms each time I see the CCTV ad featuring a foreigner speaking strangely toned Chinese in praise of a digestion enhancement Chinese medicine. Getting married to a foreigner, especially white, is still the ideal of many Chinese women. A woman friend who married a US citizen told me the competition to find a white husband in online dating services is always intense, with no actual requirement asked of their Mr Rights.

An online survey of 2,568 people conducted by major portal at the end of 2008 may shed some light. According to the poll, 60 percent of respondents said they believe the majority of Chinese are worshiping or having faith in anything foreign, and when communicating with people from developed Western countries, nearly half of the surveyed said they are not confident.

Such lack of strength in spirit is not only limited to individuals. It has spread to the business world, so much so that an American freelancer based in Beijing observed, "If you're a white guy in China and you own a suit," you are guaranteed a well-paid job.

Mitch Moxley wrote in the Atlantic magazine about the "odd trend" brewing in China, where companies hire fake executives from the US and other Western nations to attend events or deliver speeches just to give the appearance of a connection with the Western world. He was once paid $1,000 a week, an astronomical sum for Chinese, to act as a "quality control" expert by a local company in Shandong in a ruse to impress the workers and the entire community. "The experience was surreal but surprisingly common," he noted. "Being a fake executive has become a lucrative source of income for expats living in China."

For many Chinese, the Western world represents the best of everything: wealth, modernity, democracy, an advanced civilization. Nothing really wrong with that. But to elicit from this assertion that Westerners are all better human beings is in no sense a healthy state of mind.

I could only attribute this aberrant way of thinking to the country's modern history full of humiliations since the Opium War, when China was brought to her knees by the Western cannons and gun powder. After more than one and a half century, psychologically many people in this nation still have yet to get back on their feet.

Some foreigners may disagree with the existence of this "white first"mentality among Chinese, citing their unpleasant experiences in China such as being ripped off at tourist sites or overcharged at hotels and restaurants. I would suggest they just see them as the Chinese way of humor. We have the dragon image as an object of worship at temples and palaces. But people make fun of them in the form of dragon dances at Spring Festivals anyway.