A few months ago Yaxue wrote a great post looking at how many Chinese view Americans as too trusting and naive; in their words we were “Dumb Americans.” Today I want to look a little at Ugly Americans, and how easy it can be to reinforce stereotypes.
The main thing I want you to keep in mind is that of China’s 1.4 billion people, only .05% are foreigners. Of this .05% a large percentage are Japanese and Korean. That means in many parts of China when a non-Asian is eating in a new restaurant, stopping by a store for the first time, or just taking a new route to work, they are likely to interact with someone who has never before dealt with a person of another color. Without exaggerating, most towns in the American Midwest are more multi-cultural than the majority of Chinese cities.
Note: I’m not particularly thrilled with using “Non-Asian” and skin color as points of reference, these things shouldn’t define people. In China though, it does really make one stick out.
Due to this relatively isolated population, the majority of Chinese people have little choice but to base their opinions of foreigners on, at most, a few interactions.
In the small town of Longzhou, where I was one of two white people, virtually everything we did became common knowledge among people of the town. I would hear fruit sellers say things like, “Oh the tall one already bought oranges today. You should get bananas.” Or students I hadn’t seen in a week would tell me that I had had a good trip to Pingxiang that weekend.
The things “the foreigners” did eventually became the stuff foreigners do to the people in that town. There was constant pressure to maintain a good public image.
So last night when I heard this conversation between a couple of 30-something Americans at the table next to me, I was more than a bit embarrassed by the impression they must have left.
Guy: No, I ordered the egg and cheese burger. This is wrong. (In broken, slow Chinese with a southern accent and exceptionally patronizing tone) Has egg, cheese, beef, like that one.
Waiter: (in Chinese) Egg and cheese burger only has egg and cheese. Do you want me to add beef? (English) Add-ah the beef?
Guy: (English) Yeah, it’s an egg and cheese burger! There should always be beef. How can you have a burger without beef?!
(Waiter heads back to the kitchen to fix the “mistake”, which is actually fairly rare in Chinese owned restaurants.)
Girl: Jeesh, these people should really learn English.
Guy: Yeah, it’s pretty stupid that they don’t.
The whole conversation revolved around a simple misunderstanding, in Chinese “burger” (汉堡 hanbao) means anything served on a hamburger bun, but doesn’t imply the presence of a beef patty (As an American, I’ve spent some time researching this subject). This isn’t the waiter’s fault, it is the fault of some long forgotten translation or a poorly prepared English teacher. The Americans should have been aware of this, given that they were discussing the English classes they were teaching, and the low level of their students.
The part that bothered me most about this interaction is the conclusion the two foreigners drew from it, Chinese people should learn English. It’s really these expats who should learn Chinese, or they should accept that from time to time they are going to get something different from what they thought they ordered. The only reason they were able to even mistakenly order the wrong food, was that the restaurant had prepared an English menu for them.
I have by no means managed to be a perfect “cultural ambassador,” and I’m sure I’ve come across just as ugly as those two did last night, but it has never escaped me that my actions will leave some kind of impression. I am representing America, and in many cases Western people in general, regardless of whether or not I am conscious of that fact in the heat of an argument.
I am realistic though, there are going to be days when you just don’t feel like putting on your happy foreign face. You’re going to get tired of random hellos that sound like cat-calls, pictures with strangers, and in my case, unwanted shoulder rubs from middle-aged Chinese men (I’m really hoping that’s just a cultural thing). It happens, you are human.
So all I ask is that when you see a fellow foreigner breaking down, I hope you’ll step in and try to keep that negative interaction from representing all of us.