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White Guy Needed – Foreigners in Advertisements

In China, white people get an inexplicably large amount of respect simply by being white (I didn’t use “foreigners” here because people with darker skin are typically excluded from these “perks” regardless of their country of origin). You get preferential treatment when it comes time to find a job (often making several times what your Chinese counterpart makes)and even in Chengdu, a city with a decent number of foreigners, Casey and I were offered positions as “marketing managers” for a wine company while we shopped at a supermarket.

A few months ago, I was offered a spot in an advertisement for a nearby restaurant. For reading a few lines in Chinese I would have received 2,000RMB (close to what a factory worker earns in a month), and a scrumptious banquet for my friends. The premise of the commercial was this: three Chinese men would spot me sitting in the restaurant’s lobby and say something about me being a foreigner, to which I would respond by explaining many of the simple pleasures that could be found in Chinese alcohol, art, and food. At the end we would part-ways and I would say something like, “I understand China.” Unfortunately the deal fell through due to scheduling problems.

Being offered a job simply because I’m white isn’t as flattering as it might sound. The company making the advertisement said they were looking for someone between 30 and 40 years old (I’m not), who was handsome (I’ll take it), and could read a few lines of Chinese off the script. Other companies are even more up front about it, simply asking for a “white guy.”

Unfortunately, few Chinese commercials promote foreigners in such a positive light.

In advertisements I’ve noticed that white people serve as a kind of shorthand for sophistication and wealth (especially prominent in real estate ads). In other cases we are symbols of modernity, or promote the idea of a company being “international” as if the company is saying, “See, even white people like our product.”

Are KFC's chef's really Chinese? Does KFC even have chefs? Do its customers dress up for their fast food? See the full ad on Youtube (thanks ChinaSmack)

When I discussed this with my Chinese co-workers they insisted that this was a symbol of how much Chinese people respected foreigners. After I mentioned the fact that in China white people can still build entire careers off of being able to speak Chinese (like Dashan), they do note that it is completely unfair. They asked “Why should foreigners get so many benefits just because they look different?”

To be honest it’s a pedestal that I wouldn’t mind stepping down from. These advertisements also reinforce many negative stereotypes about foreigners. Europeans are “cultured”, Americans are “cool”, and Africans are often portrayed as “primitive” (which has been brought up in more than one discussion with African friends here). In advertisements it’s hard at times to distinguish between powerful and colonial, idolized and ogled or between curious and completely daft. At other times these advertisements seem to have shifted slightly as China has become more assertive; the underlying message now being, “See, now the foreigners work for us.”

Hopefully a more confident China will eventually lose the trope altogether, but I’m not holding my breath.


32 Comments

  1. Pelo says:

    So glad you did a post on this. I’ll leave it at that.

  2. NotAnotherTourist says:

    Great post, and sadly too true in Asia. The KFC ad reminded me of their campaign in Korea a short while ago which was “really?”
    You can see the full ad here: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2191/3535542630_930466c9b5.jpg

    and one of the smaller ads here http://www.flickr.com/photos/denicecrawford/3503405870/

    They weren’t always together, so the first time I saw one, it was just “KFC really?”

    Here’s the link to the Chinese TV spot for the Taste of Ireland campaign: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmeplXHRYCI

    🙂

  3. I’ve been waiting for you to write about this. When I first began my China experience I thought it was pretty rad that white folks got so much attention but now, after having to deal with several uncomfortable situations and bizarre expectations, I’m not so excited about it. Best case scenario, the fascination with white foreigners will peter out in a few decades when more Chinese people have had dealings with us.

    • NotAnotherTourist says:

      I assumed (and hoped) that after years of living in a small rural village, my students, colleagues and neighbors would get so used to me and my husband that we might be able to venture out in public without anyone making a fuss over us. That never happened. The only solace we got was interactions with certain people who were so afraid that we might speak English to them that they avoided us as much as possible! It was a bit easier when visiting bigger cities, but that still didn’t stop the comments and attention (both in Korean and English, sometimes meant for us, sometimes not). I like feeling “special” but being treated as a celebrity based on my ethnicity is not the way I’d prefer to be appreciated ^-^

  4. I really dislike this kind of treatment, as I do the ‘we don’t want foreigners with Asian faces’ employers here in Korea.

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    My Scottish friend in Beijing (balding forty something male) caused huge amusement to his Chinese friends when he advertised a hair restorative product. He posed for the commercial as himself for the “before” part and wore a wig for the “after” part – miraculous results indeed!

  6. Lao Why? says:

    My European friend was offered 100 rmb to wear a suit to a 45 minute business meeting for a company he didn’t work for. He was not to say anything in the meeting, just nod a few times. He was obviously being asked to assist a local company to build the perception that it was legitimate with western style management and corporate governance.

    One of the perks of this Laowai syndrome is that when my wife and i travel to the third tier cities, i often get approached to have my picture taken, almost always with a group of 20 something year old girls. Hey, not too bad a gig! But they always hand my Chinese wife the cameras and want her to snap the half a dozen pictures! Drives her crazy. She wants to charge shou fei (fees).

    • M says:

      well if this is the worst thing she worries about then good for her, if she would be Thai in Thailand or Filipina in Philippines I’m pretty sure she would be worried about different thing and not far from suicide if she would care about what other natives think

  7. James says:

    I thought it was interesting for the first few months, until I visited a tourist site, and everyone wanted to get their picture taken with the camel, and then get their picture taken with the foreigner.

    It is strange to anyone who’s grown up in a culture that is at least somewhat mixed to be in a place where a redhead or a person with dark skin can actually be so distracting to passersby that they crash their bicycles due to inattention to the road.

    Or when young children see you and burst into tears and run for their mom.

    • M says:

      why is it strange? you just explained by yourself why it’s natural and not strange at all in homogenous society, I think it’s perfectly normal and logical, on the other side it can be annoying after some time, but you can do nothing about it so just learn live with it

      I have actually completely opposite experience from living in Beijing and see only minor difference compared to my “home” country, not feeling like anything special here (being typical aryan guy, not to be mistaken for some foreign origin chinese), maybe after long enough time I stopped paying attention to this and/or have very good filter on my eyes. it maybe also because I’m trying to avoid tourist sites flooded by non-beijinger tourists who may be not so familiar with everyday view of laowais (you can meet these people also nearby transport sites as railway stations, easily recognizable by huge baggage and sometimes also villager/farmer’s appearance 1st time in big city)

      • James says:

        “It is strange…” Because no matter what one KNOWS logically, it is still not the reaction one is used to. 30 years of people acting “normally” is not wholly replaced by 10 years of living in a different culture where people have a different idea of what is normal behavior.

        I would never stare so hard at a foreigner that I ran my vehicle into a tree, or another cyclist. Because: (1) it is nearly impossible to tell who the foreigners are in my hometown, and (2) it is a matter of priorities – I am operating a vehicle, unless something catastrophic happens, I must operate my vehicle in a safe manner, as I am responsible for my safety and the safety of the others around me on the road.

        That is how I lived for 30 years, and then I switched cultures. Even having studied the culture and the language, and lived there for a decade, it was still suprising to me at year 10 seeing bicyclists crash simply because a woman with black skin biked past them going the opposite direction.

        Not as suprising as year 1, but still suprising.

  8. Lao Why? says:

    Did you see the news story about the expat mom that, while shopping, was shocked to find her daughter’s picture on a Chinese manufactured toy? The daughter’s photo was apparently taken off a Facebook like social media site and used by a Chinese PR or graphic design firm that assisted in the layout of the toy box. How weird would that be if you are shopping in the store and there’s 50 little images of your kid sitting on the shelf next to the Slinky toys?

  9. ldzufkwx@sharklasers.com says:

    I beg to disagree. White MEN get respect. White women are viewed as whores, and treated accordingly.

    It’s why I can’t wait to get the hell out of China.

    • M says:

      you got your point, but maybe you should ask why they are being seen like this? if you like drinking (and getting drunk), smoking (vulgar in most of Asia, behavior reserved for prostitutes), swearing and anything which has nothing to do with being feminine then it’s no surprise that compared to majority of chinese women you are being viewed as prostitute by majority of chinese citizens (even by chinese coworkers seen, who may be disgusted by this behaviour, but be more polite to pretend they don’t care and understand it more than regular folks)

      it’s sad truth for all nice white girls who know how to behave (for beginning no smokers, not drinking (and getting drunk) on regular basis, no swearing) that they are being judged by loudest representatives of their gender, but after all even those will get depressed by lack of interest from white men (understandable yellow fewer for majority after coming from emancipated Europe/USA) and chinese men who would consider white girl only as funny experience but not good enough to introduce that prostitute to parents as longterm relationship (if white girl would be after all interested in them which is not from other obvious reasons, so it’s fair deal from both parties)

      after all there is even whole bunch of non-chinese white men who would (partially) agree with this view of typical white women with chinese people, you wanted emancipation, you got it with all benefits and cons and you are not really welcomed in China and it’s funny how many naive girls are out there not understanding this before coming to China

      I’d like to see article about this, because I’m trying to warn at least (female) readers of my site about this to seriously think about coming to China because (big generalization follows, but valid for majority):
      a) white men are interested in chinese and not in you (most of them, if you will be lucky you are OK for ONS)
      b) chinese men are interested in chinese and not in you, because you are not stable/reliable for longterm relationship and after all most of them don’t want strong woman
      c) white women don’t like short chinese men who don’t know hygiene, sex and other basic stuff

      so I guess your only option would be turn to lesbian or lower your expectations from chinese/white men, otherwise don’t be surprised by life in celibacy

      • chiara.minglu says:

        Dear M,
        I’ve been living in China for long and I would like to say that yes most people considered me not as respectable as chinese girls(I am “girl”)…I don’t smoke, I don’t swear, I don’t drink, I don’t wear clothes that can offend the chinese culture.I don’t really think that emancipacion, as you say, is closely related with drinking, swearing, smoking etc…so I don’t understand why you say that I wouldn’t be welcomed in China. I have been studying chinese culture and language for more that 15 years..I have many good (chinese) friends here in China.I am not here to LOOK FOR a husband and I don’t consider depressive the possibility that chinese or “foreigners” don’t like me, and wouldn’t take me as a “wife”. That’s not a woman first prerogative in her life, I personally think.
        In any case, please let me disagree with your vision of chinese woman, I have been teaching in a high school and I can say that girls in (some parts of) china are just like girls in the rest of the world..they smoke and drink…way much more than my male-white-colleagues.
        My ex-company boss was a chinese strong woman that smokes and drinks, and I can assure that she was considered as respectable as other chinese women or probably more because she is quite rich and powerful.
        White man are interested in what they like…that can be girls of any kind, and from my experience, I would say yours “white men are interested in chinese and not in you” is quite a big generalization(as you said).
        I consider that you’ve been too severe with the view of chinese and not-chinese femenine background, but it’s just an opinion.

      • M says:

        thank you for opinion

        i’m giving this advice just based on experience from some other foreign girls I’ve met in China which were quite disapointed and felt lonely. if you will arrive with your boyfriend it’s fine, but if you will arrive as single woman you should be prepared for reality which is not very pleasant for foreign women (as I described) for whom “chinese man” is not an option at all to consider, so they have of course considerably smaller chance to meet anyone compared to foreign men who are going after anyone (I’ve also met foreign men who don’t find chinese girls attractive and prefer foreigners but this is very rare, most of the foreigners have from many good reasons yellow fewer)

        of course there are modern girls in bigger cities or even in smaller who drink and smoke, but it’s still very small minority out of all chinese women and these girls you can meet usually in bars/clubs for foreigners are good only for one thing, it’s their decision

        your company boss could afford to drink and smoke because she was in power and rich, regular (not rich or famous) average woman who would be drinking and smoking would be considered as…

      • Joel says:

        ha, this reminds me of a karaoke party at work — it was a Chinese company that published the local expat magazines in Tianjin, so there was me and two other white guys in the room. One of the other white guys was a woman, and she smoked. Some of the Chinese and Korean guys just couldn’t get over it, especially the Koreans. They even told her directly that her smoking was like a man… they seemed intend to impress this idea upon her, like they thought she maybe didn’t realize what she was doing. It was funny. To see both of their reactions: the Koreans for being so incredulous and earnest, and the (newly-arrived) American woman for not having a clue how her actions were perceived.

  10. Joel says:

    As someone whose face is on the sides of buses, billboards, and outdoor video screens in Tianjin (and whose back of the head is in the 1911 movie!), I can testify that being a white guy definitely has its advantages when it comes to advertising. But I suspect that our general notions of “respect” and what Chinese people mean when they use that word are significantly different.

    • M says:

      indeed, I don’t think you can ever gain real respect if you are not native chinese, same with people living longterm in Thailand for example even if you speak perfect thai you will be always farang (lao wai)

  11. 34f67dg72 says:

    ‘Europeans are “cultured”, American’s are “cool”, and African’s are often portrayed as “primitive”’
    I’m sorry to be so fussy, but you really should look at your apostrophe usage in this sentence.

  12. Lao Why? says:

    Oh, and buy the way, what American eats KFC with a fork? (see pic)
    I notice that KFC does not use the phrase “finger lickin good” in China!

    • M says:

      I guess because 98% of chinese wouldn’t understand meaning of word “lickin”, sadly especially for chinese women…

      anyway fast food chains are seen here as something for richer people (which is especially funny to situation in USA where it’s the cheapest option of eating outside), so fork is maybe sign of wealth, while poor people eat with hands and chopsticks

      • S says:

        Sure, there are Asian guys who only want an “experience” with a white woman, and there are (more than a few) white guys who have fetishes for Asian women. But I know plenty of interracial couples in Korea (yes, even KOREAN men married to white women). Are they totally accepted by society as a whole? Not yet. But their families seemed to have welcomed all of them. And before you start claiming these marriages were for a Green card, half of these couples have chosen to stay in Korea and settle down.

        As for never gaining real respect, I’d have to disagree with you there, also. True, there are a bunch of outgoing white females who behave in ways which aren’t in line with what is expected for Asian women, and yes, they give us a bad rep. There are also a bunch of outgoing white men who behave poorly and leave behind a bad impression. I don’t want to go hang out in the areas near the military bases or foreign areas because that’s usually what you can expect to come across. However, I can tell you that because my husband and I don’t behave like college kids on permanent spring break, and are hard workers, respectful of seniority and make an attempt to respect local traditions, the majority of my colleagues have confided in me that they used to have a bad impression of foreigners because of the stereotypes, but now that they have met us, they see that we are not all that way.

        I think much of it really has to do with both sides not understanding the cultural rationale for the behavior. I had a colleague tell me a common stereotype of Americans is that parents don’t love their children because they allow their kids to leave home at 18, and the children don’t love their parents because they don’t pay them back for their support when they are older! Explaining the importance of independence in (individualist) American culture is hard for someone from a (collectivist) Confucian culture to wrap their head around at first! That’s why this blog is a great way to look into Chinese culture in an attempt to understand it better.

        You do bring up some valid points, but it sounds like from all of your comments that you have struck out with women on both sides of the world, and I am going to guess it’s for your chauvinistic attitude and knack for offensively stereotyping people!

    • Chia-fu Chen says:

      Well, I’ve seen KFC China used the phrase 吮指回味 in their commercials a few years back, which is a rough translation of “finger lickin good”.

  13. MAC says:

    Tom, I think you dodged a bullet with the commercial falling through, the basic outline sounds horrendous.

  14. […] 原文:White Guy Needed � Foreigners In Advertisements 作者:Tom发表:2011年10月31日本文由”译者”志愿者翻译并校对 […]

  15. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  16. RedArmyMom says:

    By the way KFC does actually have Chefs. I met a bunch of them staying at a hotel once in Texas. They were from all over the world and were there for a week long training and experimenting with new recipes. I can’t imagine they had much taste for chicken at the end of the day but didn’t seem to have a problem with throwing down a few drinks.

    Thanks Tom for the great Blog. Enjoy your insights to China, homeland of my four children.

  17. […] Tom, who was offered an acting role simply because he was a white guy, discusses the disturbing racial shorthand in Chinese advertising. (Seeing Red in China) […]

  18. Shana says:

    I lived in China and the only drunk women I saw where Chinese woman literally on their hands and knees puking on sidewalks, as for whores, a foreign man cant walk down the street without most of the women offering themselves to him, from my experience Chinese women drink a lot and most are for sale

  19. yang says:

    lots of talk about nothing , Many of the people talking about China really don’t understand the Chinese person or the culture .

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