Last year, on Christmas Eve, the foreign teachers were invited to a special Christmas buffet held at a nearby 5-star hotel. The meal is normally 600 rmb, a kings ransom (to put it in perspective, 600 rmb covers 6-months of my water and electricity bill, or an entire year cell phone bill) but free for us foreigners because they want to look more international and many Chinese people consider a Christmas event more “real” if westerners are there. Also, as payment the foreigners had to literally sing for their supper by performing a few Christmas carols.
I missed it because of class or something, and regretted it based on everyone else’e reaction. They had a full turkey (something I have never had in China before) ham, steak, a salad buffet and more. So I was really excited for it this year, and I made sure I was available. Only this year it was marred in controversy, and it’s kind of my fault.
You see, one of the foreign teachers is a vegetarian, which is normally not a problem. Sure, we rag on him, but he rags on us and no one is upset or offended. But his British girlfriend came to stay for a month and she’s a Vegan with a capital V. She can’t even handle a plate of tomato and eggs laid down in front of her and looks disgusted until someone moves it to the other side of the table.
Not only that she is the most PC person I have ever met, getting offended for other people, and finds pretty much no joke amusing. For instance the other night we were talking about our favorite actors or actresses and she promptly interrupted and said “Actor is a gender neutral word, so you don’t need to say actress.”
So we’re all walking on eggshells around her trying not to do or say anything offensive. Then, the subject of the Christmas dinner came up. I called my friend who is organizing it and I asked if my boyfriend could come for free. She said no, that since he was Chinese he would have to pay. We were out when I found this out, and I happened to mention it to everyone. One of the other foreign teachers also has a Chinese girlfriend and he was a little annoyed as well. As the dinner was Christmas eve, and he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend alone on that day, he said he wouldn’t go. Totally understandable. (His girlfriend lives in another province, but was staying with him for a few weeks.)
Then the Vegan got involved. “That’s racist,” she said. “We should take a stance. We need to fight this, and show them that they can’t treat people differently.”
Here’s the thing, I agree that it’s racist. And by racist I don’t mean black versus white, but rather benefits foreigners get living in China (reverse racism it’s sometimes called). In China, the fact is that foreigners, both black and white by the way–it has less to do with your skin color and more to do with your passport–get special treatment. Free dinners, meetings with important people, easy access to good paying jobs. It’s especially unfair to the foreigners of Chinese heritage who don’t get treated as well just because their face looks Chinese.
Our job is inherently unfair. We can get an easy job, with good pay and free apartment with no training, just because we were born in another country. The poor chinese teachers have to work for years, and get degrees and pass tests to become college teachers, with pay starting way below ours. All a foreigner needs is a college degree and a foreign passport. So I think it was hypocritical to gladly and willingly accept and support one benefit of racism and then eschew another part.
Needless to say, we argued about it over the course of a few days, and on the big night 4 of the 12 foreigners refused to go. But they missed out on one amazing dinner.
Everything was there as before, turkey, ham, steaks cooked to order. A salad buffet with 4 kinds of lettuce, and a desert bar that covered several tables. They even had about a dozen flavors of New Zealand ice cream, New Zealand ice cream! It was amazing, and unlike any dinner I’ve had in China before.
And we definitely played our part as “foreigners.” While we get these special privileges, they usually come with a price. We are expected to behave like dancing monkeys, with everybody staring at us, taking pictures with/of us, and parents forcing their children to speak to us and say “hello, nice to meet you” usually the only english they know. And of course we had to sing and entertain the crowd. All of that can be pretty uncomfortable at times.
In my small city, foreigners are few and far between and we might be the first foreigners the locals have seen, and possibly the only. So while getting these benefits is racist in many ways, I also see it as a diplomatic mission. I’ve had several people (including students) who said they thought all americans were ‘bad guys’ before they met me, and even something simple, like speaking Chinese, can really leave a good impression. “Hey, that american is learning our language, I guess they are not a selfish as I have been told,” is a sentiment I have heard expressed a few times.
In fact, that’s partially why I started this blog in the first place. There is a lot of cultural misunderstanding between the US and China and by experiencing it, and sharing that experience, it helps more people understand China. At the same time, I’m here teaching not only the language, but through my actions and behavior I’m teaching others about the west.
So it’s a shame that others immediately put a label on a situation and are unwilling to be flexible or look at things in a different light. But you can’t change others behaviors, just the way you react to them, and I guess we all have our issues, or lines in the sand we wont cross. I’m just sorry the others missed out on such good food, and the opportunity to meet and interact with some local people.
I’ll finish up this post with one funny anecdote from the night. Next to the turkey was two big silver pots filled with thick brown liquid. “Look guys,” I said to a few friends near me. “Gravy!” We all got bowls and dipped, or poured it over our turkey. Several hours later, while we were all patting our bulging belly a chinese person said how good the Shark’s Fin Soup was.
“I’ll never eat shark fin’s soup,” I said aware of the environmental implications.
“You already did,” she said pointing to my half empty ‘gravy’ bowl. Whoops. The chinese people must have thought we were redneck foreigners dipping our turkey into this expensive soup.