This week I worked with former AllSet Learning intern Amani Core to create a resource to help learners of Chinese discuss issues of racial discrimination, social injustice, and effecting positive change. You can find what we created at: Discussing Black Lives Matter in Chinese.
One question this prompted among a few readers was an incredulous WHY? Some readers didn’t see any connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and learning Chinese. I hope it’s obvious that there’s a very clear connection if the learner happens to be a Black American, and Black learners need Chinese language resources relevant to their lives too. But for now I’ll assume this is a white American sincerely asking, “why do I need to learn to discuss this topic in order to talk to Chinese people?“
Once your level in any language is sufficiently high, you’re going to want to be able to have at least some level of discussion on most topics. Quantum physics, watercolor paintings, the life cycle of a frog… it’s all fair game. You don’t need to be able to hold a lecture on the topic to be able to at least follow what the discussion is and say a few words.
But this topic is different. Black Lives Matter, racial inequality, social injustice… these topics go beyond just “something I should learn a for key words for at some point.”
The reason is because if you’re American (or even Canadian, European, Australian, etc.), Chinese people are going to ask you about this. Random Chinese people (drivers, hair cutters, old people in the park, etc.) as well as friends. They’re going to ask you because they’re curious, realize their knowledge of the matter is limited, and hope you can offer some insight. Sometimes the way the question is asked can be quite revealing. I’ve been asked about racism in America in all kinds of ways, including:
You Americans sure are racist, huh?
Why are Americans so racist?
Why do Americans look down on black people?
Black people in the USA sure have it hard, huh?
No white Americans I know aren’t going to want to just say, “yeah, we’re racist” and leave it at that. They’re going to want to offer at least a tiny bit of nuance beyond “it’s complicated,” even if their Chinese is not amazing. It’s a difficult conversation to have even in English, so it’s certainly not easy to talk about the realities of race in America in Chinese. But because Chinese people come from such a very different cultural context, and the average person really knows very little about this topic, there’s also less pressure.
So if you’re American (or find yourself talking about the US a fair amount) and are studying Chinese with the intent to talk to Chinese people in Chinese, I recommend you become a bit more familiar with this topic, starting at the intermediate level.
Our original blog post contains links to just three vocabulary lists at the B1 (intermediate) level, as images as well as a PDF, but there’s more to come. Vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition, after all.
For more advanced students and teachers, you’ll want to check out the online Google spreadsheet, which includes way more vocab. It will give you an idea of how we plan to expand this resource.
You often hear about “the importance of culture” when you learn a language (and I recently did a podcast on that very topic), and a lot of attention is given to “cultural differences” as well. And yet, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem very real until you’re deep into it yourself. It’s kind of hard to demonstrate simply, in an impressive way.
Well, no more! This image will do the trick:
Recently I’ve shown this image to quite a few Chinese friends and co-workers, asking them, “what do you notice right away about this image? What do you think it means?“
With very few exceptions, the Chinese people will talk about the cell phone, and then the gun. The skin color of the person is usually entirely overlooked. Obviously, Americans tend to have a very different answer to those questions.
Then, when you explain how most Americans will view the image, expect a very interesting conversation to follow! Try it.
I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:
The text reads:
At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers
100% TEFL/TKT double certification
100% full-time teaching
100% university graduates
So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?
This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.
I’m not saying it never happens, but I see black women prominently featured in Chinese ads seldom enough that I notice when it happens. These ads from the Shanghai Metro are by JD.com (京东), which is a Chinese company, not just a foreign company doing business in China.
There’s also one ad with pale (half-?)Asian girl, and one with random perky white dude:
The ads all read:
That means, “it’s you that made the spring come.” Not the most inspired slogan, but easy for Chinese learners!
Last night I went to see the movie Pacific Rim at Shanghai’s newest, biggest mall, Global Harbor. My hopes were not super high, but I ended up really enjoying the film. I had totally forgotten that it was directed by Guillermo del Toro; I think it was suddenly seeing Ron Perlman’s face in the movie amongst all the other relatively unknown actors that reminded me. Anyway, very fun movie.
A few things struck me about seeing the film in China:
1. The Chinese mech dies first. This is kind of a shame, not because they’re Chinese, but because their badass red, four-armed robot with buzz-saws for hands looked awesome, and I would have liked to watch it do a little more damage in battle. This didn’t really seem to bother the audience, though; the Chinese mech pilots weren’t even really characters in the movie… easy come, easy go.
2. The human characters in the movie use the Japanese term kaiju (怪獣) for the giant monsters they’re fighting. This was kind of interesting. The (simplified) Chinese is 怪兽. (Another common word for “monster” in Chinese is 怪物.)
3. The Hong Kong Chinese are experts at dicing up the kaiju (giant monster) corpses and selling the parts on the black market (as “medicine”?). There is discussion of the going rates for ground kaiju bones and various kaiju organs. This struck me as both a funny stereotype as well as somewhat insightful.
What do you think? Racist? Or would the biological matter derived from monsters from another dimension totally be worked into the black market, extreme fringes of TCM relatively quickly?
In case it’s not immediately obvious, here’s the focal point of the piece:
> So-called transracial adoptions have surged since 1994, when the Multiethnic Placement Act reversed decades of outright racial matching by banning discrimination against adoptive families on the basis of race. But the growth has been all one-sided. The number of white families adopting outside their race is growing and is now in the thousands, while cases like Katie’s—of a black family adopting a nonblack child—remain frozen at near zero.
> Decades after the racial integration of offices, buses and water fountains, persistent double standards mean that African-American parents are still largely viewed with unease as caretakers of any children other than their own—or those they are paid to look after. As Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has asked: “Why is it that in the United States, a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?”
This article made me think back to the time I saw a big group of foreigners at the Shanghai Pudong airport, each couple carrying a precious newly adopted Chinese baby, getting ready to fly back home. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now I do realize that all of them were white.
So this does make me wonder… Would a black couple have trouble adopting a Chinese baby in China?
I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)
> A: Your English is not like American English.
> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.
> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?
> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.
> A: Is it like Chinese?
> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.
> A: Oh, I see.
The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”
What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??
I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.
I was searching Youku for interesting Chinese videos about Obama, but all I could find were a few CCTV news clips. If only average Chinese young people liked to video themselves talking about all sorts of topics and put it online, like American kids do on YouTube!
In the process, I ended up doing a search for 黑人 (“black person/people”). Most of the search results were rap or hip hop or dance related, but there was one bizarre one that stood out:
It’s not even Chinese (not related to “Black Man Toothpaste“); it looks like Thai to me. Apparently the Chinese have no monopoly on bizarre/offensive use of black people in toothpaste advertising.
I’m probably just being over-sensitive here, but when I saw this image on Authorize.net‘s website, this is what went through my mind: Is this “positive racism” (read: Asians are smart and good with computers, so they can protect you well from fraud) or “negative racism” (read: guys in China are totally trying to defraud you)? I’ve had enough issues trying to use an American card in China and being flagged for fraud (despite repeatedly telling the bank that I live here) that I’m inclined to suspect the latter.
Of course, I’d like to be able to say, “it’s just an Asian guy’s face in a graphic,” but I’m American, and everyone knows Americans are obsessed with race. We just can’t let it go.
Asian, Brunette, Blonde: that’s the order. A friend of mine recently explained this to me.
Most people with any China experience know that when there’s an Asian among a group of foreigners in China, Chinese restaurant/hotel/etc. staff will naturally approach the Asian in the group. This is very understandable; there’s no way of knowing that one of the white people has been in China 10 years but the Asian has lived in Idaho all his life and doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. It’s still a fair enough assumption.
A friend of mine (who is dark-haired) explained to me that she has two friends she hangs out with frequently in China: an Asian and a blonde. When the Asian friend is present, Chinese staff all approach her for any communication needs. No surprise. The funny thing is what happens when the Asian friend is not present. The Chinese staff all naturally go to the brunette rather than the blonde. Never mind that the two girls are “equally white”; apparently subconsciously, darker hair equals higher likelihood of speaking Chinese.
In 1942 the US War Department produced a Pocket Guide to China, which includes a comic book-like section titled How to Spot a Jap. The goal of the section is to teach American soldiers how to differentiate the Chinese from the Japanese. It covers differences in the face, feet, stride, and pronunciation of English. (Do any veterans out there remember this thing?)
I found How to Spot a Jap a fascinating little piece of wartime memorabilia. Go on and “nostalge” about the US’s racist wartime policies. (It sure is a good thing that’s all a thing of the past, right?)
We English speakers have at our disposal an astounding variety of racial slurs. I don’t need to give a list here; we all know it to be true. I think one of the most interesting slurs is “round-eye” because it seems to be invented by the very group of people to whom it refers.
It may be obvious to many Asians, but as a white American, I didn’t notice anything strange about the way the term is used until after living in China for some time. The truth is, I’ve never heard any Chinese (or Japanese) refer to whites or any non-Asians as “round-eyes,” in Chinese or any other language. At times non-Asians in China might get called hairy, simian, uncivilized, or even evil, but never round-eyed.
Asian eyes: not slanted
The reason for this is simple. While non-Asians often see Asian eyes as “slanted,” Asians do not see themselves that way. If you ask a Chinese person about the difference between Chinese and white people’s eyes, for instance, they will tell you that white people’s eyes are often blue, but Chinese eyes are “black.” In addition, white people’s eyes are usually much deeper set, and all seem to have the “double eyelids” that the Chinese find attractive. What they don’t say is that “their eyes are rounder than ours.”
I think it’s pretty obvious where this racial slur came from. The logic went something like this:
> Asians have slanted eyes, but we don’t. Asians’ most readily identifiable feature, to us, is their slanted eyes. So our most readily identifiable feature to them must be our non-slanted, or round, eyes. We can’t understand what they call us in their languages, but it’s gotta be round-eye!
The fact is that the Asians themselves just don’t see it that way. I’ll admit that I’m basing most of what I’m saying on my own personal experience in China, and to a lesser extent my experience in Japan. It’s possible that some groups of Asians use this term, maybe as a reaction to being called “slanty-eyed” by racists. However, I suspect that it is a wholly non-Asian invention, and that the most likely Asian groups to use it would be ones living as minorities in the West.
In the same lecture on the rules of speech acts in which my professor quoted Confucius, he talked quite a bit about race. His point was that the rules of speech acts govern what we can and can’t say about race in society.
According to him, the rules depended on who “the weak” (弱者) were. The weak could be spoken of positively by the rest of society, but if they were spoken negatively of, there would be strong resentment. Furthermore, the priveleged in society could not be spoken of too positively, as that would incur the wrath of the weak.
As an example, he gave holidays. Why are there Teacher’s Day but not Student’s Day, Secretary’s Day but not Boss’s Day*, Nurse’s Day but not Doctor’s Day, Labor Day but not Rich Man’s Day? To this a student asked, “well what about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?” My professor laughed. “Parents are the most downtrodden of all!” he replied. The class, chuckling, agreed.
He went on to talk about a Chinese song which had been popular in the 70’s. The song glorified the Chinese people, along with their “yellow skin,” “black hair,” and “black eyes.” At that time, everyone thought it was a great song. And yet, such a racially-fixated song would be out of place in Chinese society today. Why?
Back then China was really struggling. It had not yet experienced the economic growth that it would under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. China was undeniably a member of “the weak” on the world stage. As such, it could glorify its racial features, and no one would have a problem. As China’s economy grew over the years and the nation prospered, it became less “weak,” and the situation changed.
As a similar example, my professor pointed out the situation in the United States. Black Americans could have black pride, but white pride was frowned upon (particularly by “the weak” in society). Similarly, Americans–including black Americans–would not really care about Chinese racial pride, because to Americans both black and white, the Chinese are still “the weak.” He predicted that a Chinese show of racial pride would, however, be offensive to many Africans.
Some of the shirts are mildly amusing. I wouldn’t wear any of them. The shirts feature such phrases (in Chinese) as:
– Here comes a laowai. There goes the laowai.
– Too expensive!
– I’m not a laowai, I’m a “foreigner.” [more on this issue]
– I don’t want a watch. I don’t want DVDs. I don’t want a bag.
– I will never give you any money. [in weird grammar]
– Don’t think that just because I’m a foreigner I’ll buy your stuff for 5 times the normal price.
I don’t find the shirts themselves very interesting, although I certainly understand the “inspiration” behind the shirts. What is interesting is the Chinese reaction to the shirts. There’s a fairly famous example of a foreigner causing a bit of a ruckus in Nanjing with a t-shirt listing rules for how the Chinese should interact with a foreigner. In that case “the people of Nanjing were angered because, reading between the lines of the T-shirt message, they saw a message of unwarranted arrogance and white supremacy. ” Obviously the messages above have the potential to piss off the Chinese as well.
I’m not one to wear t-shirts designed to provoke anger or outrage. Still, if you want to buy one of those shirts (mainly one of the latter three) and wear it around China, I’d be very interested to hear what kind of reaction you got.
Note: I have already posted an entry about this entitled 老外的T袖衫 in my Chinese blog, asking my Chinese readers what they think. I may write a future post about their responses.
I recently stumbled across African Hip Hop Radio. I’m certainly no authority on hip hop, but while I find the African hip hop interesting, I wouldn’t call it good. (Yet.)
It makes me wonder, though… how much of the interest generated in the African hip hop scene (both in Africa and around the world) is based on the racist assumption that if blacks in America (or elsewhere) can do it, so can blacks in Africa? Such an assumption denies successful black hip hop artists the credit they deserve and simply feeds into a “black people have rhythm” stereotype. It also ignores the role of the United States and other countries in creating a cultural atmosphere conducive to the production of such music.
Personally, I would be much more interested in African music that was completely devoid of some (imagined) cultural/ethnic/racist link. African country music, African punk, African emo… now that would get my attention. I would also expect the African interpretations of those genres of music more innovation and adaption of those music forms.
On the other hand, African musicians may just be seeing this as an “easy in.” Because it’s hip hop and the rest of the world has some interest in hip hop, they have hope of recognition. The racist idea that blackness functions as some kind of validating factor for the quality of the hip hop music produced works to the African musicians’ advantage.
Take the Chinese example, though. The rest of the world, in general, has little interest in traditional Chinese music. Chinese immigrants have not developed entirely new genres of music in other countries. Most modern Chinese music is often viewed as derivative of Western pop, Western rock, Western rap, etc. The few Chinese musicians that dare to be innovative receive scant attention overseas. The Chinese musicians have a difficult task ahead of them because they have no “easy in.”
I make these observations off the top of my head; my views are not researched. I’m interested in other opinions on this. Whatever the case, though, I am very interested in musical innovation coming from Africa, China, and anywhere. Even if I consider the music uninteresting, I respect the artists’ courage to innovate.
It’s happened again! My company needs more foreigners. Last time I whined about this on Sinosplice for several months Micah ended up working here. Success! As the company grows, however, two foreigners are not enough. They’re looking to hire up to four more.
Anyway, if you have some English teaching experience and you speak Chinese, you might be interested in the position. Check out Sinosplice Jobs for the details and shoot me an e-mail if you’re interested.
Now for the bad news. Not only does the company hire only native speakers of North American English, but they want them to be white as well.
At first I denounced this as just blatant racism, but it’s actually a little more complex than that. My company has actually hired Chinese Americans before. The problem is that when clients hire a teacher or a teacher trainer from our company and they pay extra for a foreign teacher, they are looking for the “whole foreigner experience.” That means not Asian, because other Asians look too much like the Chinese, and that’s just boring. And it means not black or Indian simply because a lot of Chinese people are racist. If the company actually tried to use non-whites as teacher/trainers, most of the clients would just reject them and demand a white one.
Yes, it’s still a racist hiring policy. It’s clear that the bottom line is money, and if being anti-racism means less profit, then the company isn’t going to do it. This attitude is pretty prevalent. What’s really needed is to attack prejudices at their roots — in households. Then demand will change and businesses will respond. The sad thing is that foreign teachers in kindergartens are a great way to give kids positive exposure to foreigners at a young age, and it would be much more beneficial if the foreigners weren’t limited to mainly white ones.
This Asian toothpaste (now called “Darlie”) has been brought up on the China blog scene before, but I’m revisiting it (prompted by Matt in Xi’an) because I recently found a picture of the old toothpaste clearly showing the old name and the new name, as well as the old logo and the new logo.
> Hong Kong’s Hazel & Hawley Chemical Co. would probably still be hawking Darkie toothpaste had the company not been acquired by Colgate. The Darkie brand’s Al Jolson-inspired logo, a grinning caricature in blackface and a top hat, was as offensive as its name. Colgate bought the company in 1985, and then ditched the logo and changed the product’s name to Darlie after US civil rights groups protested. However, the Cantonese name – Haak Yahn Nga Gou [黑人牙膏] (Black Man Toothpaste) – remains.
Wow, I never imagined I’d be cool enough to have reason to quote “Toothpaste World” on my own website.