Making the Chinese Face

26 Mar 2004

When I was little, it was not uncommon for kids to make the “Chinese face.” By this I mean they would pull back the skin on the sides of their faces, stretching their eyelids back, and say, “look at me! I’m Chinese!”

That was a long time ago. At that time, “Chinese” still meant “Asian” to us. Since then, I’ve learned that that kind of behavior is considered rude and offensive. I’ve also grown up.

Recently, though, something made me think of that offensive “Chinese face,” and I started to wonder… what would Chinese people think of it? So I explained to my girlfriend that it was something that American kids used to do, although now it’s considered racist (for good reasons). And then I did it for her.

She thought it was hilarious. She couldn’t stop laughing for a minute or so. When she did stop laughing, she asked me to do it again. And then promptly erupted into laughter again.

My point is not that Asian Americans are uptight. Even though my Chinese experience is very different (and much easier) than that of an Asian American growing up as a minority in the USA, I can now much better appreciate how it feels to be a minority. You become super sensitive to every little way you are treated differently, but at the same time, no one takes much notice of jibes aimed at the majority.

I think that this little experiment also demonstrates that my girlfriend wouldn’t even recognize a lot of the more subtle ways that people are racist towards Asians. Growing up in China among all Chinese, she just never came into contact with it.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Yeah, I know all about the Chinese face. I used to do it and go “choing, choing, choing” when I was a kid and nobody ever called me on that. Now that I’m married with someone who is ethnically Chinese if I find a kid doing that back home I’ll smack them up side the head just like somebody should have done to me.

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: March 26, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Asian Americans–in fact, ALL minorities in America–can at times be hypersensitive about anything they consider racist.

    However, the Chinese face IS troubling. There’s an underlying message there: “slanted” eyes are not as good as “round” eyes. After all, you don’t make fun of something you consider BETTER–i.e., thin people make fun of fat people for their fatness, but it’s never the other way around. By making the Chinese face at an Asian, a white person is saying, “My eyes are better that yours.” This will lead to a logical conclusion: “I, as a white person, am better than you as an Asian.”

    Of course, Asians make fun of, say, Caucasian hairiness too, but let’s face it, it’s not the same thing. Again, you have to link everything to history: white people and not Asians created the modern world. So, of course, Asians, when being criticized by whites, would feel a more painful sting than whites being criticized by Asians. And whether he knows it or not, a white person, whenever he makes the Chinese face, is gloatingly reminding an Asian person of his “inferior” status in the world. Thus, the Chinese face is an exercise in asserting white supremacy. That’s why it’s insulting.

    The solution, though, is not be hypersensitive about it. Ignore it for racial protests are incredibly imbecilic. Instead, for any Asian person, what he–or she–should do is try to become as successful as he can be. Cause only when everyone’s on the same level worldwide will racism–and the Chinese face–truly die.

  3. I have to disagree with this: “no one takes much notice of jibes aimed at the majority”

    I’d modify that to read “no one takes much notice of jibes aimed at the majority’s (or anyone else’s) physical attributes.”

    I personally don’t see what’s racist about saying that Chinese eyes are shaped differently from Western Europeans’, though. It’s true, and not a value judgement. If you want to test their reaction to real racism, tell someone that Chinese people aren’t as civilised as Americans. Or mention that China couldn’t have made it to orbit without the help of (white) Russians.

  4. ignoring racism will not make it go away. if blacks had done that in the 50s and 60s jim crow would still be with us and if chinese had ignored the chinese exclusion act asians would still not be able to obtain us citizenship. take the bastards to court, says i.

    racism is used for precisely the purpose (keeping other groups from obtaining success and equality) to which you ascribe the cure. in other words, i think you’re putting the cart before the horse. anyway, good luck on the exam next month!

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: March 26, 2004 at 11:57 am

    Prince Roy,

    True, true. It’s the whole DuBois/Washington argument again: should you demand equality or should you work towards it? In the past, going through the courts was definitely necessary. Nowadays, I don’t know. I might be naive, but I think in America, ANYONE, regardless of race, can make it, and that often, people cry “racism” to excuse their own self-inflicted problems. Worldwide, it’s a bit more complicated, but again, I think non-Western nations blame Western nations way too much for their own problems. Racism is bad, but a misguided perception OF racism is often worse for it frees the “victim” from having to take any personal action to get ahead. But I’m being too political, and the post is still only about a lighthearted take on making Chinese faces! HA! (Thanks for the good luck. I’ll need it!)

  6. Da,

    Children are not that logical. Adults try to play that game.

    I won’t even start on the Asian encouragement. I will just assume that you made a mistake and meant everyone. Success is where I jump to. Most people don’t have an opportunity to have what most call “success”. Success is also often tied to money which is inaccessable to most as well. How about some humanity? How about everyone striving towards some humanity?

  7. I don’t think you need to make it so complicated: kids in all cultures make fun of differences (racial or otherwise) with “foreigners.” The idea that “white” people do this differently from other people is silly. Or the idea that “white” people should feel worse about this because of history is also silly. The whole idea of “racial responsibility” is racist itself. Do all “white” people bare some responsibility for Bush’s idiocy? Or Stalin’s atrocities? No more than all Chinese are culpable for Chairman Moe’s crimes.

    In any case, I think if a 6 year old makes the “Chinese face,” it makes him no more racist than a Chinese kid who puts on a cowboy hat and plays an American. As adults, we may view it as insensitive because we are seeing the “Chinese face” in an entirely different (and politicized) context. But I wouldn’t blame the kids so much.

  8. As one of a handful of ethnic minorities in my school system (from preschool to junior high), I can say it’s pretty uncomfortable to be a target of racism.

    Mom just told me at dinner the other night that in preschool, the children were afraid of my brother and I (as the only Chinese in class) and the teacher had to gather all the children to talk about differences in appearance. It’s pretty funny to think that was only two decades ago.

    My all-time favorite line from ‘white people’: “Go back to where you came from!”

    For an interesting read, please refer to the Chinaman & Chink article:

    http://racingmix.com/word/chink.htm

  9. I do find it offensive, because I saw many times some British kids or teenagers do that to some Chinese who walk passed them when I was in London. I think such experience happened in big cities, London, NY, or any European cities that do make Chinese people feel uncomfortable, and being racist.

  10. FreeJack Says: March 27, 2004 at 3:43 pm

    Try being overweight as a kid…or as an adult, for that matter. It’s not always racism, folks – some people just love making fun of differences in appearance. People who are overweight are probably the most silent victims of discrimination you will ever find (usually because they hate themselves, too). But the whole “Chinese eyes” thing is because kids love making fun of people who are different than they are. Some people never grow out of it – like my “friends” who delight in making “ching chong” sounds, as if they’re speaking some alternate-dimension form of Chinese…which ends up, inevitably, making it into Hollywood films where they actually try to pass it off AS Chinese. As if it would have been so tough to find a Chinese-speaker who could give you an actual translation to use. But no…it’s FUNNIER to have it sound bizarre and inauthentic, right? The humor comes from the difference – the more cartoonish they make it appear, the more hilarious it’s supposed to be. Kids do the “Chinese face” to get laughs, not out of racist intent. Adults know better…so when they do something like that, it reveals something about their character.

  11. Ya~~
    China is not multi-cultured enough now, so we can’t understand the feeling of “being part of the minority”.

    Here’s an ironic story: many Chinese people criticise racial discrimination,while some have bias on other colors. That’s more then ironic!
    There was a gilr selling snack food outside ZJU Yu Quan Campus, then she married a black guy. Believe it or not, many passers-by including teachers and students would laugh at her marriage every they passed her shop (it’s not a shop really, just a 摊子), they even laughed out in front of her! Finally, as you know, the girl and her mini shop disappeared.
    I was told by a teacher.
    What do you think about this?
    I’m shame of those Chinese people.

  12. China is multi-citied/provinced. Minorities are the ones that are not native to a city. It is the “wai di ren” phenomenon and it is very strong and quite under-addressed.

  13. My husband said he made that face when he was young too. Then he showed me how it looked like and sounded. I laughed and found it funny. But I probably will feel offended if any of my friends do that too me. It’s like calling a French “frog” or an English “square head”.

    Just MHO.

    cumin

  14. Wilson,

    Thanks for the relevant link. And wherever did you discover that link originally??

    Also, to everyone else, thanks for all the good comments!

  15. I thought about that same expression the other day as well. Your experiment gave me some good insight that i’ll share with others who travel the world w/ me.
    Later,
    Greg

  16. I sure got alot of those growing up, along with the song “Ching Chong Wing Wong, can you see..?” Growing up in Miami (Florida) where there were few other Asian Americans, I was given the role of the token “Asian” kid. Of course, its hilarious to me now, because I know no doubt that those kids were just so honestly ignorant and had no idea of how to respond to difference. However, I still get references to my race, where some people (particulary Hispanics here in Miami) have to remind me that I’m Chinese by saying “China”(in Spanish accent).. oh my gosh, thanks for telling me that, I never knew, what a revelation!

  17. I do recall someone doing that face to me, a long time ago in elementary school. But.. like your gf, I thought it was kind of funny because the person doing it wasn’t meaning any harm. He said something like, “I’m Chinese like you!” and all I thought was, ‘Hmm…’ and then I laughed because we both knew that you can’t turn Chinese by pulling the skin back next to your eyes. However, I imagine that if I was walking down the street and people made that face towards me in a condescending manner, I would be quite offended. It’s all in the thought that counts.

  18. Vieri Jr Says: June 23, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    I’m from a country where the chinese are the majority. When I was young, being an indian, kids will make fun of my language and skin colour. 10 years later, I still have close friends who are of various races, and we still poke fun at each other’s races, in a good and humorous way. Television doesn’t help either, as more racism is portrayed widely. I agree with the Steph, it’s the thought that counts. Not all chinese people will be able to enjoy “slit eyes” jokes. Their mentality plays a great deal in accepting others’ antics.

  19. The mother of my Chinese (mainland) girlfriend thinks “foreigners” are dirty. That is funny coming from people who shower once a week, otherwise of course you are wasting water. Then there is the grandmother who came to see her American friend, who was observed like an animal in a zoo. Apparently the first foreigner she has ever seen.

    Of course I have had a wide assortment of strange behaviour while travelling around China. I have had people looking at me in the country side with their mouth literally hanging open, and no physical response when I stood infront of then and spoke a few words of Chinese. They were just frozen in time and space. Another time i saw off into the distance a man and his young son. The father pointing at me. I turned around and back again a minute later to see the father’s finger a few inched from my mouth and the son in his arms. Some of it is funny and some of it is just rude. You learn to develop a thick skin in China.

  20. @ John: Part of the reason your Chinese experience is easier is because you are an adult. Children can be cruel to their peers, and it is easier for an adult with a secure identiy to shrug off racial remarks and gestures than for a child who is still developing a sense of self and group membership. It would be interesting to hear from any foreigners or biracial residents who attended Chinese schools.

  21. Hi Sonagi, I think it’s a bit different being the type of ‘minority’ John is in China versus being a ‘minority’ in the USA. If John was Tibetian living in Beijing, Japanese trying to live in China or Korean in Japan his experience might be closer. Remember that the USA has quite a history of discrimination in law and culture against not only blacks/African-Americans but Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, etc., so the lingering and subtle effects still carry on in many ways.

    The ‘face’ that John made is quite benign in China because it carries no baggage, it’s just a funny face. In the USA the kids aren’t just trying to ‘look’ Chinese, they are mocking and teasing. It only takes one parent or older sibling to model this behavior before it is picked up by other youngsters. Although the children have no deep motivations, the baggage of the parents and society are part of the cultural lexicon in that ‘face’.

    I think that John didn’t go too much into a long explanation of the differences in his experience vs that of an ethnic Chinese person in the US, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it was just because he was an adult,
    I doubt that discrimination is any easier in adulthood than in childhood.

    Whether you’re part of the majority in the USA, or the majority in China…it seems to me it’s pretty tough to understand what it is to be ‘in the minority’. John’s really unique b/c I think he quite gets it, either side/either place.

  22. Brad said “I personally don’t see what’s racist about saying that Chinese eyes are shaped differently from Western Europeans’, though. It’s true, and not a value judgement.”

    Quite a shocking statement I must say. Maybe I could try a a couple examples to point out the subtlety:

    1. Hey Joe Smith, your skin sure is a lot more pale than mine.
    2. Hey Joe Smith, look at your pasty, white-trailer park, freakazoid, go-home to Liverpool skin.
    3. Hey Joe Smith, look at your wonder-bread skin, you have some peanut-butter to go with it?

    4. Hey Jackson Brown, how come your hair is curly like that? How do you cut it?

    5. Hey Jackson Brown, why don’t you straigthen out that crappy afro?
    6. Hey Jackson Brown, that curly hair is like from Africa, you want to look so third-world?

    Yes, Brad it means nothing (#1) if your friend says, hey you have beautiful eyes, how come they look different than mine vs. the example John is talking about. Think about it, I know you can.

  23. While I’m at it. I agree with Prince Roy about systemic changes. For example I think it’s quite dramatic that in China it is now possible to get a ‘green card.’ We won’t start talking about the U.S. “Patriot Act”.

    Changing peoples minds on a one-to-one basis–although fun to try sometimes (hence my two previous commnents), and great for goodwill, a lively-discussion, etc., at the end of the day it has a very high effort/ to low result/change ratio.

    Time much better spent surfing the net, eating, drinking and having fun with friends and co-workers instead.

  24. @George: I spent 13 years as a “minority” in extremely racially homogenous South Korea and China. “Discrimination” is a big, loaded word that means many different things to many different people. American kids pull at their eyes while Asian newspaper cartoons and children’s history book illustrations give whites noses like birds’ beaks and blacks sausage lips. John and I learned the languages of the countries we’ve lived in and try to fit in culturally, but we don’t call ourselves “Chinese.” The real test of tolerance is when someone who looks very different, has a different-sounding name, and perhaps practices an unfamiliar religion calls themselves “one of us.”

  25. @Sonagi: Hmm…I’m not quite sure what you mean. So you’re saying that discrimination in China towards a white/caucasian person is similar to discrimination against Asian-Americans in the USA? I realize it’s kinda impractical to parse this all out in a blog comment or two, but I would say being white in China is maybe more akin to being a Chinese/or coloured in South Africa during the aparthied years. Except for the model-minority myth (All Asian-American kids are brainiacs) I don’t think kids/adults in America mocking Asians are at the same time holding them on some high pedastal, which is the case in China towards those with blue eyes. John I’m sure gets a mix of both rudeness and exhaltation from Chinese, the exhaltation probably well deserved-but we’re just talking superficially right now. The whole dynamic of race/discrimination revolves around power/status/and systemic barriers.

    It’s not that someone can or wants to call themselves ‘one of us’, any individual can classify/identify themselves however they want, it’s whether the society/other person permits it.

    In China, John eventually will be respectfully called lao-Shanghai much like Ken is. I don’t know how the green card system works specifically, but it seems pretty close to full citizenship. This is different in Japan where family registries do not permit a Korean to become ‘Japanese’, and it is different when in the past the USA did not allow a black/African-American to vote. Neither could a Chinese man marry a caucasion woman, etc. etc. John can marry anyone who’ll marry him. (plus some copious paperwork)

    I think you were making the point that ‘discrimination’ exists everywhere. I agree with that. But that’s like saying there are bad apples everywhere. I for one know that there are types of apples here that don’t exist in the USA and vice versa. Part of the value of having had a bite of both is not just knowing they’re both apples, but how they taste different; and maybe which one one prefers.

    Well, maybe actually it’s not all that valuable or important, knowing how to make a good apple pie–that’s something to add ice-cream to.

  26. George,

    I’ve heard both expats and locals say that comparing racial attitudes in Asia and the West is like comparing apples and oranges, and I agree.

    I also agree that identity is a mutual construct between self and others. In fact, reading your last post, I pretty much agree with everything you wrote.

    I also applaud the Chinese for being pragmatic and open enough to give green cards to foreigners. I lived in Korea nine years and waited in vain for the introduction of a permanent residency visa program for foreigners. The lack of permanent status is the main reason why I left.

  27. Here in Taiwan, one of my Chinese teachers at the language center I’m studying at made the slanty-eyed face to describe Japanese. She was explaining how to tell Asians apart, and she asked the Korean student in our class, who looks very Taiwanese, if Korea has people with slanty eyes, and then she made the gesture. I thought it was funny and interesting that in America that face is used to describe Chinese/any Asian, but Chinese people use it to describe Japanese. Has anyone else seen a Chinese person use this gesture to describe other people?

  28. Korean history books for children depict the Japanese with slitty eyes and buck teeth. Most Koreans are naturally endowed with single lids although many women have theirs surgically altered.

  29. The Chinese face was pulled when I was at school in the 1970’s in Australia and it is still pulled today as I work as a teacher in 2007. However, kids are now punished as I am a teacher and their parents are informed of their child’s behaviour. Not many Chinese work as teachers in the Western world. They are doctors, dentists, accountants- anything other than lowly paid teachers. With my perfect Australian English accent, I throw the kids off balance and they cannot seem to work out who I am!

  30. Your mom Says: June 17, 2007 at 12:40 am

    Okay…you adults probably don’t know how it is to be having any person passing you and shouting ‘Choing ching cheng!’ and all. It’s sickening to the bone. I, as a Chinese person, do not respect that. It’s true, we do sometimes insult the white, black etc. people. But its only because of our nature to do so if they insulted us in the first place. If they never did, we wouldn’t have to deal with it.

    I don’t ever like discriminating against any person, such as a fat person, African American, Mexican…whatever.

    Because the racial interaction with kids and their parents (I would know, because I’ve seen lots of my classmates with their parents, chatting behind my back, and I have the guts to fake smile and flip them out, both verbal and physical), we are powerless, unless the majority of the race become a minority.

    I think we have to pretend we are in the victims feet and see how it is to be discriminated and insulted. Why do you think their are many organizations for different races in America? It’s because of the racism! And not just America. It’s also international. It’s pathetic! We should be seen as shades of gray, not race.

    Oh, and it’s not just race. It’s mainly how people look too. Like overweight and obese people. Its funny how we don’t insult deathly skinny people that much.

  31. Someone said like to tell chinese and Japanese apart just look who has the thick eyebrows?Japanese have thicket eyebrows he said and he said like Japanese are usually more tan?lol

  32. It’s intended to offend, and very offensive.

    No need to overthink such gross caricatures and blatant insults.

    I guess White people are just genetically racist since they start at such an early age…

  33. Wow, Rebecca, what remarkable insight.

  34. I’d make White face, but I can’t make my skin pale as a wonton wrapper. All I can do is blow my belly out and puff my cheeks like I’m a beached whale!

    All in good fun though! My German girlfriend laughs whenever I do this!

  35. wang ming wei Says: March 24, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    to many westerners, asians are the people with the small, slanted eyes
    to many asians, westerners are the people with the big noses.

  36. wang ming wei Says: March 24, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    I forgot to add, while western school children might have this game of pulling your eyes to make them look asian, chinese children have their own game which makes them have double eyelids for a few seconds. it’s really funny~

  37. I was just thinking about this issue today, and revisited this post. I think John is spot-on with his analysis. Words or actions are not offensive or racist in themselves; it is the cultural context which imbues them with a particular meaning or connotation. On the other hand, outside observers (and, arguably, young children) perceive them stripped of their cultural meaning.

    Before I came to China, I remember reading that foreigners here are sometimes referred to as “big noses”. I got quite a giggle out of that. It was hard to think of it as offensive, when I had no experience of being on the receiving end of discrimination. Now I would see it in a different light.

  38. The U.S. waxed millions of native americans at the drop of a hat. Pontificating about children being cruel is a joke. Right now your country is shooting children in the face if they dont hit the floor . Now scared heavily armed 19 year old boys are kicking in a bed room door. You are the reason why children are monsters. Stop building your ivory towers and start building bridges. Spend some time picking a headless child off the floor. Try to look at diferences now before you become extint from your own mondasity. Chinese eyes is a great place to begin for an 8 year old . Get over your past. Be a blood doner , save a dog , sumthin.. jeez. I say ,”what about you?” Make the chineese fase all you want tonight . Remember, your tax dollars are killing children now !

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