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.”
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.