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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Diversity Month | Woman of Colour in China

Der heutige Beitrag ist von Yeneni, eine junge Frau mit tamilischen Wurzeln, die besondere Erfahrungen mit dem Leben in China gemacht hat und diese in diesem Text teilt. Ich dachte, dass es vielleicht ganz schön ist, zum (fast) Abschluss einen Einblick in ein internationaleres Feld zu bekommen.

As a 25 year old Sri Lankan woman who decided to uproot her life from her hometown in Toronto, Canada and move to Nanjing, my experiences have been more than overwhelming. Teaching in a foreign country is something I never expected to do in my life but I found myself here; going from a city that was multicultural to one filled, primarily, with only Chinese people. Not that Chinese people aren’t multicultural in their own right. Having travelled to Chinese cities and villages from north to south, east to west, I can tell you that China is filled with a myriad of dialects, ethnic tribes of different religious backgrounds and people with distinct physical features.

Nanjing is considered a mid-sized Chinese city, with about 3.6 million people. It’s not considered one of China’s international cities so most people there aren’t used to seeing foreigners. My first few experiences consisted of me being stared at unwaveringly by people. At times, someone sitting next to me on the bus would simply turn to face me and stare at me as long as they liked. Even when I looked back for a few seconds and turned away, the staring did not subside. Initially I felt uncomfortable, just as my mostly Caucasian colleagues did, but I got used to it rather quickly while they did not. Perhaps it’s because while Toronto is multicultural, many other Canadian towns and cities are not. I was used to being stared at with curiosity at home and knew that people did not have ill-intentions, they simply could not help wonder about someone who looked so different from them. Chinese people are used to seeing the features of their own people so when they see someone with bigger eyes, darker skin, and an entirely different facial structure, they can’t help but stare and wonder where I’m from and why my eyes and skin are of that colour and tone. I’ve gotten used to looking at them and smiling back, sometimes waving. Surprisingly, I find that Chinese people are much more geographically aware than many Canadians. When I told them that I was ethnically Sri Lankan and not Indian, they immediately knew where I was from. Perhaps it’s because Sri Lanka is a popular tourist destination now, and Chinese people love it because they don’t require visas to travel there, but perhaps not.

Conversely, there are a few aspects of the Chinese fascination with foreigners that I vehemently disapprove of. Many Chinese people seem to almost worship Caucasian features. All the creams in China contain some form of whitening bleach (apparently this is the case in India as well), and there are ads for plastic surgery featuring blond models with blue eyes and pale skin, stating that Chinese women can become just as beautiful. Many women in China undergo these surgeries to make their eyes look bigger and more “Western”, to change the shape of their jaw so that it is more pointed and less square. When they see a Caucasian woman, many men will follow her around, ask for her number and call her beautiful. Women will often ask to take pictures with her so that they can show their friends that they have a “beautiful foreign friend”. Heck while I was watching Cinderella a few months ago, I saw girls taking so many pictures of Cinderella’s princess transformation with their iphones that I couldn’t help but stare in disbelief. Many years ago, a guy from northern Ontario (an area with very few coloured people), who just recently moved to Toronto, hit on me and asked where I got my beautiful tan from. It took me a while to process his comment and realize that this man had never seen a brown woman … that he saw me as a very tanned white woman. I had another Caucasian man from a dating site tell me he only liked to date white women and brown women because they have “white features” and of course I ended all contact with him from that moment on. In China, I met one Chinese guy who wanted to date me and told me that in Sociology, he had learned that white people evolutionarily originated from Indians. He remarked that I was, essentially, white and I looked at him in horror and thought “so since this is the closest you’ll get to a white woman, you figure it’s good enough.” I swore that if any man or woman ever said I looked Caucasian again, I would protest in a way that made it very clear that I was proud of being Sri Lankan and coloured and that I was happy with the physical traits passed on to me by ancestors. Throughout many of my travels in China, I was stopped, called beautiful and asked for pictures. I often obliged but these days I’m much more hesitant simply because I don’t want to be called beautiful for apparently having “white features.” To tell you the truth, I find that Chinese people have the most beautiful jawlines, healthy shiny black hair and skin, which can turn olive without ever getting sunburnt, I have ever seen. Every single one of us has features that others admire and find beautiful, if only we could see that beauty for ourselves. I hope that one day people will appreciate their own beauty and stop imitating the Western Eurocentric beauty standards that the media has fed to us for far too long.

As a final note, my experiences as a Sri Lankan woman may not accurately reflect what other women of colour have experienced in China. A friend of mine from the Bahamas, who is of mixed white and black descent, for example, tells me that her experiences have been quite different. She said that it’s difficult for her to find work as an English tutor here because most Chinese people would prefer a Caucasian tutor. Oftentimes, black people in China are paid far less than their white counterparts for the same work. It seems that in China, it is just as hard for people of colour as it is in Canada or anywhere else where we are the minority. There is still much change that needs to happen in this world. We need to exercise our rights as humans to strive for equality and bring about fairness in the job market.

Thus, while there are aspects that I will likely never understand in Chinese society, I have found that my overall experiences have been tremendously positive. Chinese people have always received me in a kind, hospitable and friendly manner. Hopefully some of the things that I have mentioned will change as China becomes more industrialized and an international power. I would love to come back again a few years down the road to see how far the country has progressed. 

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