29 September 2007

British actor Stephen Fry, known for playing everything from medieval clerics to alarm clocks, has a blog. And considering that he is so ubiquitous that he’ll even rouse you in the morning, it’s quite appropriate his second post is on Fame, it’s advantages and drawbacks.

I am not famous. Not even a little. And yet, living in China, I experience something akin to Mr. Fry’s fame. Consider this passage:

I get stopped on the street, I get (occasionally) hounded by photographers, I get letters from strangers asking for money, sex, advice, approval, time and so on. Journalists with nothing better to do write descriptions of my personality or offer glancing mentions of me. People who have never met me know that they loathe me, or that they like me. I am asked to be patron of this charity and to be on the board of that good cause and so on. I can get a table at the Ivy restaurant and tickets for premieres and parties. A medium ranking sleb.

In my time living in China, I have been stopped on the street, surreptitiously (and occasionally blatantly) photographed, been offered jobs, interviewed by journalists, and overheard people opine about whether or not they approve of me. But I am not famous. No, my skin, my genetic heritage, my physiology is famous. Because I’m white. I just hang on to those coattails, or rather, I’m dragged by them, since I can’t change my appearance. My phenotype is a medium ranking sleb. I am a distinctly separate entity in these encounters, orbiting the interaction between this Chinese person and my body. Whether they actually are addressing me, or simply the archetype they assume I am, is a roll of the dice.

There are times when it is utterly impossible to have a reasonable conversation with someone in China because of my blinding whiteness. I am perceived as a White Man, with all the intrinsic characteristics attributed to that category. Some have been unable to accept that I am not Christian - I have been called a liar for asserting I was not. All white men are wealthy Christian Americans, for some, is a tautology.

Some expats and bloggers in China have argued with me that these are naive and sweet stereotypes, a product of isolation and ignorance, and separate and distinct from Racism™, which is the monstrous creature that burns crosses, enslaves nations and exterminates whole peoples. I cannot accept this argument. Once you are in the habit of placing people into boxes based on something as slight and insubstantial as appearance, it is merely a matter of changing the label on the box from “silly foreigner” to “inhuman enemy”. I am not so quick as to embrace terrified imaginings of a near future in which tens of millions of sexually frustrated, xenophobic Chinese men invade Everything, but I recognize the backdrop that makes such a suggestion imaginable.

Mind you, if I were black in China, I might apply the word “infamous” rather than “famous”. It’s been no secret to those of us living in China that people of different races are painted with a brush as broad as Yunnan, and the recent round-up of black people in Beijing is par for the course. Likewise, other racial categories, including even Southeast Asian Chinese, are further down the totem pole. I’ve witnessed Chinese businesspeople say they will hire a Filipino because they are cheaper. Skills are irrelevant; your market value is determined by ethnicity. As a white man in China, I feel more self-consciously privileged than I ever have before in my life, and simultaneously never felt so discriminated against, objectified. In a strange way, it has been a good thing for me - I don’t think I would be as aware or sensitive to how race is perceived, around the world, if I had only lived in the U.S.. Indeed, recent hysteria over China confirms this belief.

This tendency to define people in groupings like this is not strictly Chinese but all too human. To apply attributes to individual actors because of their membership in an ethnic group or nation, denying their individual choices or self-definition, is something I now prickle at when coming from my own country as well, as toy recalls invoke the dangers of “The Chinese”, as opposed to the dangers of long supply chains and merciless price competition. It’s interesting to read about the newly released Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson’s movie about three well-heeled American brothers touring in India, and how it casually depicts Indians as essentially exotic props.

I find myself wanting to follow a sort of code of radical individualism, resisting the application of broad categories or stereotypes as shortcuts to familiarity with people I encounter. But it’s damned hard - after all, it can become progressively harder not to stereotype a Chinese stranger who stops me on the street as someone who will stereotype me, becoming a negative feedback loop of stereotyping and distrust.

Like Mr. Fry, I would like people to stop coming up to me in supermarkets because of my face. But I don’t think they will.

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