They, they they: Expat racism and how it works

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When I came to China, the cold-water taps on the water dispensers at the airport didn’t work and all these Chinese people were just getting hot water out of the machine and I just couldn’t believe it! I tried to tell them and they just ignored me and kept getting the hot water out of the machine and even drinking it! Once I got to my apartment, I was scared to go outside for weeks. When I finally did, I discovered some Chinese people are even really friendly and some of them are actually even quite smart! I just couldn’t believe it! Also, I’ve tried and tried to learn Chinese but I just can’t. About all I can say is shay-shay and I prob’ly even am still saying that wrong”

The above isn’t miles away from a verbatim quote; accuracy limited only by my memory. It was part of an expat’s speech in praise of China at a seminar at the foreign employment bureau (FEB) in Guangzhou (2019). Many readers may find the quote harmless and wonder what it’s doing in a blog-post about expat racism. Others may be wiser. Read on to find out why the above is more racist than it sounds and if this blog-post turns out to be old news to you, then share it with someone who could learn from it. Or if you disagree with anything here, I’d like to hear your views in the comments section.

Present during the FEB speech in question were a couple of hundred expats (including me) but more importantly, various Chinese officials and FEB staff who were (still are, presumably), as fluent in English as native speakers. And worse again, far more articulate expat speakers took the podium and even if they used bigger words and more eloquent turns of phrase, they delivered the same message; they were surprised to find Chinese people were as human as anyone. I all but hid my face in shame to be associated with any of them. But I’ve realised it does little good to be hard on these people. I don’t think they knew what they were doing and if they realised, they would probably be shocked and not want to make the same mistake again. But how can they ever realise and learn if nobody tells them what they are doing, in a non-confrontational and helpful way? So this is me, trying to do that. I hope this message is received in the spirit of helpfulness in which it’s intended.

I suspect the speaker in question remains to this day, completely unaware of the extent of his xenophobia (fear of foreigners). He may even (definitely, actually, he said so at the time) think he has reached a lofty vantage of culturally open enlightenment, through his exposure to Chinese culture. It’s also fair to say that while misguided, his intention was genuinely to praise the locals; all he probably thought he was saying was, “China is a pretty good place in the end.” While his altered view is definitely a step in the right direction, it still shows that he views Chinese people to be very different from him, as if they are almost a different species and not people, just like him. It’s a bit like saying, “you’re not bad at this…for a woman” or “For a disabled person, you’re pretty cool”.

For those who don’t understand the lightning-quick and often unconscious thought processes and sets of beliefs “innocent seeming” comments like these come from, they probably come across as harmless and well intended. It’s not until you understand what a person has to unconsciously believe, feel and think, in order to use the exact words they use, that you see how damaging they are. To help illustrate this idea, let me decode his speech for you, in chunks.

Here’s the first chunk:

When I came to China, the cold-water taps on the water dispensers at the airport didn’t work and all these Chinese people were just getting hot water out of the machine and I just couldn’t believe it! I tried to tell them and they just ignored me and kept getting the hot water out of the machine and even drinking it!

Here is the decoded version:

I am used to drinking cold water. What I am used to is what everyone in the whole world must be used to. So if I discover the machines don’t have cold water then the only possible interpretation of the situation is that there’s something wrong with them! They must be broken or something. And I don’t know what’s wrong with all these people that they don’t seem to have worked it out. I’ll try and help them, here I go… Oh! They’re ignoring me [possibly because I’m speaking in a foreign language they don’t understand and gesticulating at the machine like a madman but…]! Oh my god! They’re crazy! It’s the end of the world! I knew things would be all weird here! I was scared to come in the first place and now it’s all going wrong like I thought it would!

Next chunk:

Once I got to my apartment, I was scared to go outside for weeks.

Decoded version:

I was scared of being in a new place where people drink hot water. What other evil madness might be lurking in wait to kill me?

Next chunk:

When I finally did, I discovered some Chinese people are even really friendly

Decoded version:

I thought Chinese people and possibly all people who weren’t from my country would be unfriendly and hostile. I was surprised that they weren’t. And not a little relieved.

Next chunk:

and some of them are actually even quite smart!

Decoded version:

I thought all people who weren’t from my country, would be really stupid and uneducated [because they can’t speak English].

Last chunk:

Also, I’ve tried and tried to learn Chinese but I just can’t. About all I can say is shay-shay and I prob’ly even am still saying that wrong.

Decoded version:

It’s hard to learn a new language and easier to stay in my English-speaking expat bubble and just get along as well as I can buying things, taking buses etc.

What this all boils down to is that Mr Speaker was scared of leaving home and functioning in fear mode, he interpreted even the most workaday of things as threats. There being no actual threats in the vicinity, he, like almost all of us tend to do, pinned his fear on random elements of his surroundings (more about this later) and acted accordingly; effectively running away from the hot water machine, trying to warn others off it (like any sensible herd animal would do…if there was a genuine threat) and hiding in his apartment until he was able to regulate (calm) his fear and felt safe enough to come out. Note that in this case, his fear was not an accurate reflection of the environment. It was disproportionate.

Although our speaker spoke in an unfortunate place (within earshot of locals fluent in his language), it’s far from the worst I’ve heard expats say, since I got here a year or more ago. If you are still wondering what’s wrong with it and still think it sounds fine, that he was saying they’re friendly and smart… Keep reading.

Given many expats feel fear of their new surroundings in the same way as shown above, sadly, a very easy target on which to pin it, is the local population and this can lead to some bizarre situations. I have seen many expats make ‘friends’ with English-speaking locals and take advantage of these friends’ good natures in all kinds of ways including but not limited to trips to the post office, ordering goods online, dealing with customer service staff at various organisations. Ok, so far, so innocent. I’ve also asked Chinese people for help in navigating complicated form-filling when the translation apps won’t cut it and the consequences of getting it wrong might actually be serious or seriously inconvenient (I’m talking about on a scale of having to leave the country to validate a visa or something, when ticking the right box will allow me to stay) . I would do the same for a visitor to my country.

But there’s a difference between asking for help and shameless use, abuse and insult. In re-enactments of the opening example, these same people complain about ‘the Chinese’ and everything ‘they’ do wrong (in the given expat’s opinion) right in front of their newfound Chinese friends who can understand them perfectly! These are not isolated incidents. It’s fair to say that in any given outing with any given group of expats (whether there are locals present or not), there will almost always be some stereotyping of Chinese locals whether positive, negative or neutral. And in about 100% of such cases, I have found myself silently disagreeing with the stereotype or not seeing why it’s relevant or worth mentioning. Ok, a lot of Chinese people prefer drinking warm water but so what? A lot of Dutch people are tall. Some Chinese people are superstitious about running in the rain being unhealthy. So what? A lot of American people are superstitious about Donald Trump being a decent head of state… Every culture has its skin-deep nuances and in my experience, they’re usually little more than skin-deep.

My partner and I have both found Chinese people to be much like…. uh, um, people! I know, sounds crazy eh? While our Mandarin slowly progresses and opens more and more doors for us when it comes to interacting with people here, we have in the meantime managed to put goodwill and the benefit of the doubt to powerful use, easily enabling us to do things that expats who have lived here for longer than us warned us against trying. For example, we have travelled independently to a lot of urban and rural destinations throughout China. We have bought from Chinese online stores, taken rides with local private drivers, received deliveries to our home (rather than my partner’s employer’s address as recommended by many expats), stayed at hotels where English isn’t spoken and generally managed to interact at a far more personal and workaday level than many people who have lived here for years ever do. We know of people who were still too afraid to take a taxi after living here for five years.

So what makes the difference between the expat who says ‘they’ in fear and vexation during daily life in China and the expat who just gets on with it and is surprised at the meltdowns going on in the expat community around them? I don’t think there’s one simple answer but as an experienced expat, psychotherapist and person, I think it’s a combination of the following.

Firstly, I am privileged enough to have not just an education but a vocation which eventually afforded me a lot of time to think and deeply instilled beliefs that people are people, more or less everywhere. That’s already a ton of weighty privileges many people don’t have. You might say, half the reason I’m not as xenophobic (I like to think not at all but we don’t know what we don’t know about ourselves) as many people is because I’m lucky.

Secondly, after moving from New Zealand to Britain where I lived for 21 years and spending extended periods in Germany, this isn’t my first rodeo as an expat; and to be fair, that is yet another privilege. It’s a privilege because people who have never moved countries before (or more accurately ‘moved cultures’), don’t have the experience of adjusting to their new surroundings but if you’ve already done it once, you have a far better idea of how you’re likely to feel in the new situation and just knowing can take some of the sting out of it.

I think expats stereotyping Chinese people and struggling to integrate is a lot to do with being a frightened stranger away from home, who lacks the reflective ability to process the emotional experience objectively. In fact, it’s known that more privileged immigrants tend to assimilate better than less privileged ones – and by ‘privilege’ here, we mean, someone who was well supported on many fronts throughout their life and particularly emotionally and during their childhood). In other words, common garden variety fear of the unknown but also inadequate emotional tools to regulate that fear. How do I know this personally, though? Because I’m no better than any of them. Well, maybe I am now but I wasn’t always. Maybe my therapy training helps me put it into words a bit better too. You’re reading this, you be the judge. 🙂

As an embarrassingly naïve expat in the (very) late 1990s, I was guilty of identical transgressions to the ones I see playing out here even if not as big and in-your-face. When my ‘antipodean’ friends and I all descended on London, I regret (genuinely) to say we (including me), complained bitterly about Britain and the British (I would never have done it within earshot of a local but some people did it at locals). Despite having made the choice to be there, nothing British (or London-ish, probably, in hindsight) was safe from our scorn. The food, the locals’ indirect way of speaking (which we perceived to be rude in exact opposition to a common English perception that it is polite), the weather, the service, the incompetence and poor work ethics of our co-workers and particularly the retail banking system (oddly) were ceaselessly made prey to our derision.

Over time I came to realise service in England has a whole different history, work ethic in England has a history and life of its own, food in England and people’s attitude to it has a whole different history (or more to the point it has a history…), bureaucracies in England are ancient and drag heavy chains of legacy which cannot be ignored in favour of quick reform. More generally, many things in England are the way they are simply because of local tradition (which like anywhere, has its own unique history).

But you don’t expect any of this when you make the move.

Thirdly, when you move to a new country, there are certain practical overheads involved that you don’t expect because you never had to in the past. For example: getting a tax number, getting a bank account, finding somewhere to live, finding work, registering with a medical practice, getting a driver’s license or converting your driver’s license to a local one, buying season tickets for public transport (which sometimes require ID or proof of address when day tickets don’t). Often these things are interdependent and in trying to get them, you end up in frustrating, if temporary, ‘chicken and egg’ situations. For example when I arrived in the UK, I needed a tax number before my contracting agency could put me on their payroll. But I needed my contracting agency to put me on their payroll before the tax department would issue me with the number. Of course there was a way around it, as there is a way around most similar annoyances but the ways into the various bureaucracies aren’t necessarily well documented (why would they be? Only a handful of immigrants need to explicitly know). It can mean weeks or months of admin limbo (a friend of mine at the time didn’t get an ATM card for a year or so).

Often locals can’t help even if they want to be helpful because they themselves have never had to do what you’re trying to do. This makes sense if you think about it because in ones native country, these kinds of things tend to silently accrete (be attracted to and gather) around you. When I was fifteen, in New Zealand, my IRD (tax) number turned up in the post, unbidden (I still don’t want it, actually…). When I was five, my parents and school opened my bank account with the Credit Union. This meant, I had a credit history before they were even invented and so opening a ‘proper’ bank account later in life was trivial and over in about five minutes. I don’t remember ever having registered with a GP practice (doctor) in New Zealand either, one just ‘went to the doctor’ (if indeed ones leg was broken or ones head was hanging off lest one be considered weak…not that I’m stereotyping). To get anything done, one just turned up at the place where it got done and asked for it to be done. As an interesting aside, stress levels and outrage with them, sky-rocketed when irregularities were met. I remember someone in the queue in front of me at the student allowances office bursting into tears and banging their fists on the counter. From what I could gather, their situation was irregular and their application was stuck in some kind of red-tape loop and required documents not normally asked for. So this kind of frustration isn’t even limited to expats! It just happens when the unexpected takes someone by surprise.

Few born citizens ever have to consciously do very much to ‘get on the grid’. Foreigners looking to stay longer than a holiday’s worth in a country though, have to do it all from scratch and all at once. And even if they have some knowledge of how it works in their home country, it’s a safe bet it won’t be done the same way in the new country. Add to that, the all too common but often not consciously felt emotional upheaval of moving home, experienced even by people moving just around the corner. Pile on a bit of jet-lag, a lug of home-sickness and, in the case of China anyway, a different language. All these stressors impact recent expats, requiring them to process experiences and emotions completely new to them.

When stressed in this way, people react in a range of ways but a very common one is to externalise which is to say, ‘blame it on anything but themselves’. This is how we come to criticism of the new surroundings, ‘they should have a better system to register your tax code, it’s stupid how it is, you can’t understand it!’, ‘They can see I don’t speak Chinese! Why don’t they just try do hand signals or something?’, ‘They know lots of foreigners come here! Why don’t they have knives and forks and an English menu?’ And other such sentiments. I think all these complaints are inarticulate expressions of discomfort with the new environment. The discomfort isn’t just one thing, but one thing it definitely isn’t, is the fault of the host country. Why would civil servants in low paid jobs or waiters in local restaurants be multilingual foreign tax experts who know the location of every post office, Starbucks and public toilet within a ten kilometre radius? All things considered, my partner’s employer had the majority of the year’s expat intake set up in a couple of weeks with just a few stragglers taking a bit longer. I think it was an example of staggering efficiency, the likes of which I’ve never seen in any of the countries I’ve had anything significant to do with.

In other words, these people blame myriad aspects of their new home for their emotional discomfort when they would probably be far better served to tell themselves something along the lines of, ‘I’m fed up of not knowing how to get stuff done, I’m homesick and I miss the people I’m close to and the foods I’m used to eating. I miss being able to communicate with people in shops and public services quickly and easily instead of having to struggle to make myself understood and to understand.’

Fourthly, I think China, sadly, enjoys a special ‘extra-feared’ status among many foreign nationals. This often seems to be fuelled by irresponsible politicians when they need a convenient scapegoat (for example Donald Trump disgracefully naming COVID19 ‘The China virus’ for his own political gain). My partner and I have observed that the Chinese government seems to be an object of fear among foreign nationals and the perception of language, culture and particularly visa application processes and food hygiene and cuisine in general seem to put would-be tourists or foreign workers off coming. It’s a shame because the place has a lot to offer!

My partner and I aren’t sure why it has any worse reputation than, for example, the United States or India, both renowned for corruption and the former for police brutality. We think though, that it might be because China has only relatively recently begun to open its borders for trade, foreign work and tourism. It’s spent a very long time being a bit of a mysterious and inaccessible destination for many people in the world and maybe it takes time for that reputation to fade.

For example, in April 2020, just as lockdown here was almost done after China had successfully contained COVID19, and much of the rest of the world including purported developed countries, were embarking on what would become their various epic failures to control the pandemic, an expat acquaintance of ours said, ‘People just love hating on China.’ It couldn’t be more true. The disproportionate nature of people’s fear and dislike of China has become more and more obvious to us, the longer we’ve lived here.

What this means for expats entering China to work, is that they are primed to be suspicious of the place and its people right from the start. They have grown up being told bad things about China by their governments, their media and their rumour networks. They are expecting to be discriminated against as foreigners, to be under constant high tech surveillance, to fall foul of the authorities for minor infractions, to be served bizarre, unpalatable and unhygienic foods at restaurants and to be flummoxed by local customs, traditions, mannerisms and values and to enjoy no civil liberties (definitely not my or my partner’s experience of living here).

That means when anything they aren’t expecting happens, they are primed to take in the worst possible way. I’ve seen this happen countless times and generally found the experience surreal. To give you a taste, here are a couple of examples.

At a hotel swimming pool, a pool lifeguard came out and took up her post when we arrived; we were the first there. An expat with us, took exception to being watched and believed it was a personal attack on her and an example of unnecessary surveillance (??!!). She felt that it was because she was a foreigner and the Chinese staff didn’t trust her to be able to watch her children in the pool. She got angry and (via a voice translation app), accused the lifeguard of racial discrimination and commanded her to go back inside. As a bystander, I was mortified. I could see the fear and confusion on the lifeguard’s face and it seemed very clear to me that she was just trying to do her job and would probably be disciplined by her employers if she wasn’t at her post when there were people in the pool. The expat herself was in the height of the classic fight response. She felt threatened and responded accordingly (if very disproportionately).

Next example: As COVID19 lockdown was easing here, there was an asymptomatic COVID case reported, originating in an African expat bar. The contact tracing and response here is very quick and efficient so all the African expats in our block were visited, sometimes in the middle of the night and told to self-isolate. Because local government had acted so quickly and pragmatically (I think it’s reasonable to suppose that African nationals will visit African expat venues), lower local authorities (block management bodies and so on) got a bit confused and began acting in a number of confusing ways towards all foreigners, including random evictions or refusal of entrance or exit from housing estates. This was cleared up within a few days with a foreigner hotline being set up and erroneously imposed evictions or confinements being rectified very quickly. The Africans self-isolating were tested until judged safe then released. Finally, trailing off for a while after the outbreak (which came to nothing in the end), temperature and other checkpoints which had begun to disappear or become lax, snapped back into action… For a little while. 🙂

Considering the size of the Chinese population and administration, I felt this response including the slight confusion around it was both reasonably proportioned and impressively executed. Too bad about the minor collateral damage of a few inconvenienced souls but sorry, it was in the public interest to make sure there wasn’t an outbreak.

On the other hand, the anti-China outrage and claims of racism, discrimination, inhumane treatment and unfairness that burned through expat online forums for weeks afterwards, was in my view out of line and vastly disproportionate to the event. Mainly what I noticed about the flock of allegations being reported by foreigners and videoed confrontations with security guards (and so on) that got waved around online, was that the whether there was indeed a case of anti-foreigner behaviour or not, the expats involved were starting the encounters expecting to be persecuted.

Their gestures, voices and faces were often suspicious or angry from the get-go so, what I think could have been painless passport, temperature or proof-of-block-residency checks became confrontations in which security guards or receptionists became resentful and put the expat in question into the too-hard basket. Conversely, my partner and I, maybe naively, assumed nothing would go wrong and showed our paperwork and accepted temperature checking with good grace, regardless of whether all the Chinese locals in the queue before us didn’t have to, or not. We were never refused entry or exit from anywhere. In other words, most of what people were reporting as discrimination against expats may have been, by the time they reported it, but I think in most cases, it didn’t start out that way. Don’t get me wrong, like anywhere, China has some xenophobic citizens and this situation did incite some of those citizens to bad behaviour as is currently happening all over Europe and the United States today. But I still think the expats were more the problem in the majority of complaints in this case.

That is another example of the above-mentioned ‘priming’ to expect the worst from China and its people, and also in many cases, white people’s first experience of the racial discrimination that millions of non-white people have been subject to all their lives. Incidentally, when such people are vocal about their experiences and reach millions through social media, China’s government’s bad reputation is, in my view, wrongly perpetuated.

So that’s a frame-by-frame of how I think various factors contribute to expat xenophobia, particularly in China where I see it happening all the time, but I also think many of the same factors apply in other expat communities. I hope expats reading this can relate to some of the experiences I’ve described, whether fearfully behaving in these ways themselves or seeing the behaviours in others. Maybe reading about it and seeing it put into words in this way will help people integrate in their foreign postings better.

Recent Comments

  • Tricia
    December 15, 2020 - 20:50 · Reply

    Dear Dan,
    Thank you for summing up my experience of living in China with most other expats here. I also wonder if the expats here have moved from their countries expecting that the same level of freedoms they left behind would follow them here? So, when strict rules are imposed, as was the case for Covid 19, it’s a shock to realise the reach of those rules.

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