I grew up hard knocks. In a rough town swirling with cowboys, farmers and loud, brash oilmen. Calgary, Alberta is not a place for the wimpy, faint hearted types. Think of it as Texas, you know that state where three white men were once convicted of dragging a black man down the road with their car, cause hell – it was fun to torture another human being.
As a child the ‘C’ word was hurled at me during casual passings. As though it was a typical behavioral tick when greeting a stranger. Flipping your hair, exacting a smile, rubbing your earlobe till it turns red.
“Hey chink!” I’d turn my head like a beaten puppy, despising myself for responding at all. My jaw would finally unlock and my slack mouth awakened, spitting back defensive language, yet I felt numb and powerless as the perpetrator was gone within minutes down the street.
Sometimes I stood frozen. Unsure whether to run after them or let the hot, angry tears come. It didn’t happen everyday of my childhood, but it certainly happened. Those are sad memories to have of a childhood home.
I digress. Truthfully, Calgary was mostly a sedate city to grow up in. A land of sprawling suburban homes and manicured lawns. No black men were ever dragged behind cars. Which is why those hateful balls of hurt stunned me so much. When you think you’re biting into a piece of sweet chocolate, but taste battery acid instead.
In my childhood city, a small town mentality circulated among the farmers, cowboys and oilmen. In one breath you heard a friendly ‘hello’, chat to someone forever in small talk, but at times the slicing word ‘faggot’ might slip out. Racism and discrimination were expressed without awkwardness. Simmering under the inviting smiles and willingness to banter, an ignorance lingered. The urge to pat them on the head was strong, to reassure yourself and them, they just don’t know any better and may never grow out of it.
I never felt in peril. Never envisioned men cloaked in white hoods lighting wooden crosses on my father’s lawn. I grew up and went past that, flourishing. Those surreal moments clued me in to something I hadn’t conceived of, that at times, others saw me as different. Possibly even deficient, which deep down, I knew wasn’t true.
I’ve been living on and off in China for eight months now and what I’ve noticed is startling. I blend in. Am anonymous and at times I find that a relief. To easily weave in and out of crowds, avoid detection. It’s not until someone speaks to me that my terrible Chinese emerges and I have to explain myself.
I was under the illusion that I sort of belonged, even though my dad is from Hong Kong and blood in my viens flows from a variety of countries, still, there are familiar cues here. I get the spitting and eating chicken feet. Saving face and gossiping as sport.
I was nothing special here, until now.
My blogging and social media life has slowed down partly due to my schedule of seeking a new place to live and work. I’ve debated going to Vietnam or Thailand, but also started looking at other cities in China that interested me.
To seek a new job in China, there are several methods, and one way is through recruiters. Recruiters ask for a few things besides a CV, such as a scan of your passport, but what’s suspicious is they also want a clear photo of you.
So, like any dutiful potential hire, I did as they asked. Sent them attachments of my entire life, short of giving them a blood sample.
Most responses have been positive, but a few slipped in that, well, surprised me.
A response from one recruiter when I had to reiterate I’m a Canadian citizen who’s first language is English.
“it is nothing to do with english, the school takes you as chinese english teacher, the face, they need the native english teacher with native face and voice.”
“It’s ridiculous, but the client wants a foreign face.”
Swilling in shock are you? I never, ever contemplated that in a country where I look like everyone else, that my face would go against me. Just like it did in Calgary all those years ago.
But in China, in an ass backward sense.
I can’t help thinking of Mark Kitto’s piece in Prospect UK, when he explains why he’s disenchanted with China after living here since the 1990’s. Titled, You’ll Never be Chinese, Kitto breaks down his impressions and feelings of always being treated like an outsider, legally and culturally, while dissecting the Chinese political system.
China has been called nationalistic, even a monoculture. It’s within these boundaries that personal labels arise. I’m not a prominent publisher like Kitto is, I live on the street level.
My students are fascinated with western culture. They imagine the United States as a country with a solid educational system, a free platform to express your opinons and technology that China hasn’t perfected yet.
At the same time, students that don’t know me find me confusing. One even said, “I thought it was a foreign teacher.” This is where I step in and try to educate them. Humans can be born and thrive somewhere else and look like you. Really, they can.
That’s the monism seeping in. As Kitto experienced, he’ll always be a foreigner. And a foreigner has a distinctive face, which never changes in the Chinese psyche.
It’s a static image, much like the political party. Keep it the same, don’t alter the program.
As for me – I will always be their face. Never the foreign face that can teach their children the wonders of travel, culture and beyond.
I stared at those emails and sighed. They reminded me of a lazy summer day in Calgary, when I could hear birds chirping and smell roses from someone’s garden. My feet encased in sneakers pounded on pavement, growing warm from the sun. I’d walk until I encountered a stranger who’s sudden words pierced my peaceful reverie. I blinked, absorbing what just happened, but this time, instead of the two of us, I stood facing all of China.