Playing the foreigner card

The white laowai's burden – by Amy Daml


For foreigners or "laowai" living in China, it’s important to keep in touch with friends from home – you know, by stalking them on social media. Some of the conversations I had on Facebook last year were about race in America, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in July finally brought the term “white privilege” to mass consciousness. Though I’ve only been an expat for three years, living abroad gives you just enough of an outsider’s perspective to trick you into thinking that these are not your problems. But they are my problems – or should I say, my privileges.

Whether out of frustration, innocence, the insistence of a Chinese friend, or just out of being an asshole, we’ve all played the laowai card. You know what I’m talking about. It's pretending not to speak a lick of Chinese to avoid x-raying your bag before entering the subway. It’s your boss’s demands that your Chinese colleagues assist their “foreign friend” with medical checks and setting up bank accounts in their own free time. It's jumping a four-hour queue to get emergency surgery at a local hospital. A few weeks ago this privilege was called on in a way that has since haunted me about my status as a white foreigner in China.

I was in Jinan, Shandong province, for the weekend to visit Anne, an old Chinese friend. I didn’t get to see much of Jinan because, typical for staying with a Chinese host, we spent the entire time eating. Anne’s poor husband Henry (also Chinese) spent the whole weekend in bumper-to-bumper traffic, carting us from restaurants at one end of the city to the other.

We had just left a massive dumplings feast, and were on our way to a fancy steak dinner. I was gasping for breath, unbuttoning my pants, and contemplating a purge to make room for the next meal, when we found the perfect parking spot. In China, that means a makeshift gap on the pavement, half on the curb and half off. The driving lane itself was flanked on both sides with parked cars jutting out – and it doubled as the walkway for pedestrians.

It takes skill and precision to manoeuvre a big car into such a tight gap, inching back and forth at painstakingly tiny angles. In America, I would have rushed to help in any way that I could. In China I'm just a dumb foreigner, so I sat quietly in the backseat. Anne got out and walked around the car to size it up, then stood in the rearview mirror, signaling the okay to start backing up. Henry checked his blind spots and followed Anne’s guidance, reversing at a snail’s pace. Holding my breath and trying to stay out of the way, I saw the whole thing in slow motion.

A mother with a stroller crept up behind us and into Henry’s blind spot just as he was inching back. The swiftly closing gap between the parked car and the moving one didn’t seem to bother her, and she went for it, baby first. I didn’t think to yell out to Henry, who was looking the other way, because my lifetime of pedestrianism told me that no logical person would attempt to squeeze their own child through a dangerously narrowing space. By the time I did shout “Stop!” the mother had hit the car and was yelling at us furiously.

The car didn't actually hit the stroller, but the side mirror tapped the mother, signaling only then to her that her baby could have been hurt. The verbal firestorm that rained on Henry, meanwhile, was as if he had run the child over at highway speed. He apologised profusely. The yelling continued. He repentantly bowed low, hands pressed together as if in prayer. Her voice got higher and angrier. He offered money. She refused, and chastised Henry and Anne for not having children and thus not being able to understand the severity of the situation.

I thought about getting out of the car, which I would have done in a heartbeat back home, but I wasn’t sure if my presence would help or harm the situation. Outside of first-tier cities, foreigners can sometimes be a shock. Would my presence inspire more resentment and criticism of my friends? Or would it be a trump card that would put an end to the argument, in the name of saving face? I wasn't sure which one I would feel more uncomfortable with. So I sat there, silent in the backseat.

I was naïve to think I could be left out of the dispute. When the mother ran out of things to scream about, she paused to look inside the car. I'm not sure who brought it up first, but the waiguo pengyou (foreign friend) was discussed for a while. I assumed my friends were attempting to bring some closure to the situation, since the woman could not be placated by apologies or money. Perhaps loss of face would calm her down? It did not.

She trumped the trump card. The mother yelled jianadaren (Canadian), lifting the stroller cover to show the baby before slamming it back down again. It turned out her baby was half-Canadian, and therefore, in her opinion, more important. Henry scoffed and asked her why it mattered if the kid was Chinese or Canadian, but the yelling didn’t stop. After ten more minutes, other drivers got sick of waiting to get out of their parking spots and urged a resolution. A final round of apologies was made, and mother and baby stormed off indignantly.

I was still in the backseat, embarrassed and ashamed. I know that foreigners have always enjoyed special treatment in modern China. While reading history books, I've even stopped to think about early colonial injustices, such as banning Chinese from Shanghai’s Huangpu Park. But I’d never been forced to confront it in such plain and severe terms. It's more than just fancy banquets and having your photo taken everywhere you go. There are people who truly believe that foreigners are inherently worth more – or at the very least, they are willing to say so to win an argument.

Of course, most people don't share this extreme attitude, but it doesn’t change that fact that I directly benefit from privileges only allotted to foreigners. There's no moral to this story. The truth is, I have no idea what to do beyond recognising that racial inequalities exist in China and probably won’t go away within my time. But I am grateful for the reminder to play the laowai card with caution.

Amy Daml is a host of the show EZ Cafe at 91.5 FM