I speak English, too

As a 老外 (lǎowài, “foreigner”) in China, I’ve run into quite a few astonishing assumptions regarding black people, Americans and foreigners in general. Some of these assumptions have come from the Chinese population at large; others have originated from students within our school. I’ve learned, from some very candid Chinese nationals, that everyone in the United States is white. It has also come to my attention that the American youth parties every single day. Apparently, all of us have tried alcohol and weed, among other drugs, and we have sex with each other at will. Needless to say, I was quite surprised by these “facts.” There I was, with my dark skin and seldom-partying ways, thinking the entire time that I was American. It seems I was quite mistaken.

I’ve also learned that my perception of the United States is quite different than that many of my fellow Americans. They see an America that is not overtly Christian, one that has become equalized to a point where everyone, regardless of race or background, is on the same level.  Whenever I hear these things, a deep, rueful laugh bubbles up from deep within me. I don’t mean to make light of the issue, but this immaculate view of the U.S. is so much at odds with what I’ve seen that it takes on a darkly comical nature. Granted, some areas are less Christian than others, but Christian values still permeate the so-called secular government. Many debates regarding abortion and gay marriage laws generally include some verse from the Bible that “illustrates” why unborn babies always deserve to live and why gay people are “abominations.” These verses and arguments tend to ignore the human element behind the controversies, discounting the social and emotional well-being of the would-be mothers or the people who would like to marry. This deliberate disregard for other people is ironic,since as I understand it, Christianity teaches a love for ourselves and those around us. That, however, is neither here nor there. My point here being that though factions in America attempt to equalize everyone, there is still an overwhelmingly large portion that believes they are the “proper” Americans and everyone who is different does not fit their definition of normal and does not deserve American privileges.

This “one type of American” line of thinking seems to prevail even more in China. More than once I’ve been confronted by Chinese people who point to me and shout “非洲人!” (Fēizhōu rén, “African”) or occasionally “印度人!” (Yìndù rén, “Indian”). These exclamations I can handle. They require more than a simple “你说错了,我是美国人” (Nǐ shuō cuò le, wǒ shì Měiguó rén, “You’ve made a mistake, I am American”) in response. Sometimes the offender is genuinely embarrassed, but more often they are blown away by the fact that I understood them and responded. A Chinese-speaking 老外 (foreigner) is mostly unexpected, for that 老外 to be black is commonly unheard of. Some Chinese people, like many Americans I’ve run into, do not expect to run into such holistically-educated, well-cultured blacks.

Small errors regarding country of origin are excusable, but errors related to perceived level of education are infinitely more damaging. For instance, a friend—we’ll call him Theo—and I were eating in the cafeteria nearest the dorms. Both of us are American, and both of us are native English speakers. Theo is a white male, I am a black female (note here that the distinction lies in sex, not gender. Gender is something else entirely). A Chinese graduate student from ECNU approaches us and speaks directly to Theo, asking him to correct her paper and presentation for spelling and grammar mistakes. He politely refused, saying he wouldn’t want to miss mistakes on such an important paper. He also suggested she ask me. She told Theo she would rather have a native English speaker correct it, and when he protested by saying we are both native and that I’d probably do more thorough corrections, she continued to push the paper into his hands saying something to the effect of, “I believe you’ll do a better job.” In that situation, the young woman first erroneously assumed that I don’t speak English (which is on some level forgivable, because not everyone speaks English). But more significantly, even after learning that I am a native English speaker, she probably assumed that my level of English education was significantly lower than my white companions. It was as if she couldn’t fathom the idea that we both might have received similar education.

Theo felt awful. He apologized many times in his characteristic gentlemanly way, and I assured him that it wasn’t his fault. In fact, living in the United States has made me mildly callous toward such situations, and I am even beginning to grow accustomed to analogous Chinese habits. I’ve considered the possible reasons behind these abhorrent attitudes of Americans, Chinese, and internationals alike. Black people are very rarely portrayed in the media as intelligent, civil beings, and the misconceptions of our parents’ generation continue to be the misconceptions of our generation until we actively correct them. Long ago, the institutions of imperialism and slavery installed white supremacy around the world, and to this day I still hear people say, “I just personally believe that white skin is more beautiful,” and even, “If you were just a liiiittle bit lighter you would be gorgeous” (these comments also have their own particular effects when it comes to the psyche of young colored people, but for the sake of concision I will not discuss them here). White supremacy spills from the pores of every aspect of society. The logic behind the racist comments I’ve encountered in China has been, “According to my parents, white people are smarter than black people, and any other color of person.” In order to derail this detrimental train of thought, we need to illustrate that people of all races are fundamentally the same in capability and potential.

Just as we recognize that all races of people are same at their core, we need to also acknowledge that so are different creeds and orientations. A gay person is no less intelligent than a straight person. A homosexual person is no more capable than an asexual person. It’s perfectly acceptable, perhaps even wise, for a Christian to work, live, or study with a Hindu or a Muslim. The more these cultures mix, the more each culture learns about one another, and the wiser we all become. We must redouble our efforts until the day when someone like me, a black, gender-confused, pansexual female studying in China, doesn’t live with the risk of being bullied and ostracized for who I am. We must redouble our efforts until we see every man, every woman, and everyone in between as inherently beautiful. We must redouble our efforts until in China, a 老外 like me is only considered a foreigner for being from a different country, not for the same reasons she is a foreigner in her own country.

This is also posted in my school’s new online publication On Century Avenue which can be found at oncenturyavenue.org

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I speak English, too

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