by margaret zhou
“Little girl, wait! Take picture?” Over the four years I spent in China as a child, I was grabbed and tugged by the arm hundreds of times by strangers who all had the same curious and excited gleam in their eyes. My other foreign friends, who stood out in a sea of black-haired heads with their blonde hair and blue eyes, were also common targets of these harmless attacks. There always seemed to be a difference, though, in how the swift picture-takers treated me in comparison to the other kids. Since I am half-Chinese and half-white, I was the only one among us who looked kind of un-foreign, kind of like them. Sometimes this would render preferential treatment, as the picture-takers would say I was the most exotic looking one; other times, I was deemed not exotic enough to be in their pictures, and instead received confused glances as they turned away. I never knew which one was better or worse.
Vivian S. Toy of the New York Times published an article last year relating the experience of her mixed children during their visit to Beijing. Her stories of picture-takers and that continuous question, “What are you?” recalled memories from my childhood. “It had become clear why my children were attracting so much attention. They look Chinese, but not exactly. They look Western, but not quite,” Toy explained.
In the same vein, an article titled “Mixed blood people get the best of both worlds” was published on the Shanghai Daily website in September 2009. The article lists the numerous benefits of being mixed in China: mixed people are popular in the fashion and modeling industries because they’re usually taller than most Chinese; they’re perceived by many as “more attractive and more intelligent”; those with an American parent don’t have to study hard in school because they can go to a U.S. university; mixed babies are often used in product advertising; and mixed men are often approached by women for marriage.
Patrick Liu, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of a mixed family living in Jiangsu Province, is cited in the article as stating that the “attractive and intelligent” stereotype surrounding people of mixed race “reflects both pride in Chinese culture and respect for foreign culture.” The article goes on to state that in a homogenous society like China, where 93% of the population is Han Chinese, “it is intriguing for people to see a different look, especially when the difference is mixed with similarities that are easy to understand” – because, of course, it’s easiest for us to understand people of our own race.
So is it true then? Do “mixed blood” people really have the best of both worlds?
For some, it’s impossible to say yes. Take, for example, Lou Jing, a Chinese African-American girl born and raised in Shanghai who was interviewed in the Shanghai Daily article. While the article briefly mentions that Lou recently performed in a Chinese singing competition similar to “American Idol” called “Go Oriental Angel,” it glosses over the spiteful attacks Lou received from much of the Chinese audience as she advanced in the show.
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Lou claimed that she had always thought of herself as “Shanghainese,” and prior to the competition, did not realize she was “different” – she had never met her African-American father, and her mother used to explain the darkness of her skin was due to too many herbal supplements taken during pregnancy. She didn’t mind when she was nicknamed “Chocolate Angel” and “Black Pearl” on the show, but when Chinese netizens described her skin color as “gross” and “ugly,” and criticized her mother for having a mixed child out of wedlock, Lou suffered a simultaneous identity crisis and emotional breakdown.
Lou told her interviewers that “[Even] if you beat me to death, I wouldn’t take part in that competition again,” and “When I was younger, I thought life was beautiful. Why is it that now I’ve grown up, I don’t think that anymore?”
So who is Shanghai Daily kidding? Not only does Lou not have “the best of both worlds,” it’s hard to say she even has one “world” she feels she belongs in. Her case demonstrates that in an era of globalization, modern China still faces a little problem called racism at a time when it can least afford to.
Lou’s case is also an illustration of what happens when an isolated society suddenly becomes a world leader on both the commercial and cultural markets. After the fall of the last Chinese dynasty and throughout the Communist revolutions, immigration to China was strictly limited because the Chinese perceived foreigners as hostile and Western influences as poisonous to Chinese society.
With the revitalization of the Open Door Policy in the 1980s, foreigners slowly trickled into China, but most were overseas Chinese. The coming decades saw increases in white European and American expatriates and tourists entering China, but numbers of Africans and African-Americans, Latin Americans, South Asians and Arabs remained small.
Today, the world is beginning to view China the way it has viewed America since the latter’s colonization – as a place of economic opportunity and prosperity. The immigration restrictions in America and Europe have also increased China’s appeal. The “Chinese Dream” has already taken hold in parts of Africa: the New Yorker reported last year on Guangzhou’s “Little Africa,” a part of the city inhabited by merchant class Africans of whom Nigerians make up the majority. Most inhabitants arrived after the opening of the Canaan Clothes Export Trading Center in Guangzhou, and spend their time “canvassing stalls for bargains and haggling with factories” to purchase wholesale clothes to sell in Africa. This activity is reflected in the trade figure between China and Africa, which increased by about 700 percent to $73 billion from 2002 to 2007. According to the New Yorker, Guangzhou now houses some 20,000 African residents who constitute the city’s largest foreign enclave.
The quickly growing population of foreigners in China means that the Chinese perspective on race will be put into the international spotlight. It also means that the next few decades will see an increase in the number of “mixed blood” people in China. The conflicts between China’s traditional conservative culture and the demands of rapid modernization are especially reflected in the oscillating attitude toward mixed people. For now, those who look more Chinese are generally more accepted than those who don’t, as demonstrated by the differential treatment of Toy’s children, myself, and Lou Jing.
But to be fair to China, the U.S. has only recently begun to address its mixed population. The year 2000 was the first time the U.S. Census allowed people to check more than one box, instead of asking them to choose one they “identify the most with.” A current Census estimate shows that the mixed population in the U.S. rose over three percent since 2008, making it the fastest growing demographic in the country, yet the lack of data regarding the mixed population means we have little insight about their political and social issues of concern. And when President Barack Obama identified himself as “mixed” once during his campaign in 2008, he received an uproar from the black community and never uttered the word again.
These facts should not come as a relief to China that perhaps it isn’t lagging too far behind the West. They should serve as a wake-up call. As the Chinese mixed population grows, China will need international attention and pressure to subdue the intense discrimination the likes of which Lou Jing and many others face. People of mixed race inevitably symbolize diversity and tolerance – ideas that all societies must learn to accept in this era of global interconnectedness.
When I am able to visit China again, I hope to be shoved and pushed through the busy streets like the rest of the crowd without having to keep my guard up, keeping it cool as the only pictures of me are taken from my own camera, on my own time.