As far as titles go, White Ghost has a pretty bad-ass ring to it, conjuring up the image of a comic book vigilante or a Soviet-era spy. In all seriousness though, it’s anything but a good thing to be called here in China.
Mandarin is a fluid language in that a single word usually has multiple different meanings depending on context and the other words it’s been combined with, making direct and concrete translations into English hard at times. But even though Baigui 白鬼 could translate into white ghost or white devil depending on which resource you’ve used, in this case I really don’t think there’s much of a reason to split hairs over the definition; it’s an obviously offensive term. And if you’re a foreigner living in Southern China, it’s a name that you may eventually get called. Maybe you’d haggled too hard at the markets, or maybe you’d refused to let somebody cut you in line, but whatever their reason was, this is what a local might call you once you’ve pissed them off.
The first time I’d heard this term was in the subway, when I’d been forced to push through a mass of incoming commuters in order to exit the train. I’d mentioned it to my coworkers the next day, and they’d tried to convince me that it meant foreign friend in order to save face and not admit to the existent of slurs within their culture. There are definitely some nice terms for a foreigner too, such as the polite Waiguoren 外国人 and honorific Waiguopengyou 外国朋友, meaning foreigner and foreign friend respectively. Even the word Laowai 老外, or (old) outsider, which wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be used in the most cultured or polite of social interactions, is still just a neutral term that only becomes derogatory due to its context. Expats often mistake Laowai for a slur because of the harsh edge that being called an outsider has to it, but really it just means that you’re a foreigner they either don’t know, or don’t really care about. The word Gui 鬼 though, has never meant anything nice; not when they refer to alcoholics and gamblers as Jiugui 酒鬼 and Dugui 赌鬼, not when I’d been called a Yangui 烟鬼 in Beijing, the northern equivalent of white ghost, definitely not when Heigui 黑鬼 appears in the Chinese subtitles whenever an American movie has the N-word in it, and most certainly not when angry protesters had spray-painted Ribenguizi 日本鬼子 on Japanese businesses that had also gotten vandalized or even fire bombed during the Diaoyu Island dispute in 2013. Nah, foreign friend my ass.
Slurs aren’t exactly necessary though when the racism in China is as incredibly obvious, and in some ways innocent, as it can often be. I’m constantly complemented for having ‘beautiful white skin’ and a ‘long skinny nose’, and as an ESL teacher, I’ve definitely come to terms with the fact that my employment here is far more dependent on my image and novelty than my actual teaching skills. Having blonde hair and blue eyes is pretty much the equivalent of Master’s Degree in ESL, and most employers will only consider hiring a Caucasian teacher, even if that means choosing a European with passable English over a qualified native speaker who happens to be black. Conversations with my coworkers during lunch have often involved stereotyping which country has the most beautiful noses, how Americans are all rich and more romantic than other nationalities, and once there was even a discussion about how some of the women wanted mixed babies simply because they’re cuter and smarter than regular Chinese ones.
As a white guy in China, I definitely have it the best too, because those same conversations have also involved the less endearing kinds of racism. NY is full of dangerous black people right?, Black people smell bad and have the AIDS, and The black man is always involved in crime right? are all questions that I’ve been asked multiple times by my coworkers. There’s never any shame or hesitation during these conversations either… No testing the waters beforehand, getting to know their audience first, or taking a pause in-between statements to check for judgment. They just sort-of blurt these things out, in such a shockingly casual manner that you’d think they were discussing which foods they like, or explaining why they didn’t care for a certain TV show. Thankfully though, these discussions have never taken on the hateful quality that they often exude back in the States, sounding more than anything like the naively ignorant opinions of a middle-schooler, rather than the contempt and malice that a group of hostile bikers might spew.
Blatantly racist comments are in no way limited to my school’s faculty either; almost every teenager I’ve ever taught has gotten a talking to for dropping the word negro or making monkey comparisons, far too many tutoring clients have asked me outright if I was black while responding to an online ad over the phone, and probably the worst as of yet, on multiple occasions in multiple cities, cab drivers have warned me that an area I’d asked to go to had too many black people. The rants that would follow, along with the tactless compliments on my white skin that would always get slipped into them, were never as shocking as how proud of themselves the cabbies would be afterwards; acting as if they’d just completed some civic duty by alerting me to the dangerous menaces of YueXiu, Guangzhou, and the Sanlitun area of Beijing. I can’t even imagine what a black person deals with while living in China, but I’m sure that they’ve been offended a countless number of times. Indians, Middle Eastern peoples, and South Americans have to endure the same kinds of hurtful stereotypes as well, and at the end of the day, the first thing that the majority of Chinese people will see is the color of a person’s skin and their nationality.
It’s easy to blame and resent the Chinese for this aspect of their society, but in some ways it’s not actually their fault; this mentality is first and foremost a product of their environment. Only 30 or so years ago did foreigners actually start coming to China, and not until recently has it grown into a popular place to work and start a life. Before China had opened its doors to international business, the people were lucky to have even read about or seen a foreigner in the media, let alone meet one in person, and even in 2014, there are many rural Chinese people who still have never seen a black or white man in person. While the generation that I’m currently teaching at my public school may be the first to have actually experienced living around foreigners since birth, they’re still being taught and raised by people who’d grown up in a homogeneous society, and it’s going to be a long time before that, and the ideologies that result from it, changes.
Media can often do more damage than good as well, with so much of the popular music and television that usually make it over here only helping to exacerbate the problems and create more confusion. A small group of high school boys seriously asked me if the movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was how the black people I know back home act and make their money, and even though a 14 year old girl I’d once taught wanted to marry Eminem, rap music had been the reason she was afraid of black people and wanted to go to college in California instead of NY. Even NBA players, who are glorified because of China’s love for basketball, still can’t escape terms like the lucky Negro (Hopefully Ron Artest aka Metta World Peace aka Panda Friend doesn’t ruin that for them). India’s recent headlines about sexual assaults are brought up, along with candidly prejudice comments, whenever the country is mentioned in a class about travel, and the videos of black Americans that go viral on Chinese social media are seldom beneficial to their image, often eliciting pages of angry and hateful comments. Without tangible examples and positive firsthand experiences, stereotypes seem to become exponentially exaggerated, and it’s sad to say but China just isn’t diversified enough for the majority of the Chinese to distinguish a race of people from rap personas and movie themes, the isolated bad experiences of a few, and the bad apples that every community has.
This, more than anything, is why as a foreigner it’s so important for us to act as guests and always try to be respectful and understanding. What we do, and how we act, could either help to change a person’s views, or reinforce preexisting, negative stereotypes, and whatever labels our actions might have created, they will almost certainly get passed on to the next foreigner that somebody meets. How we present ourselves could make the difference between I worked with a British guy once, he was very rude and arrogant, and now we try not to hire them because of how troublesome they are, and I love Americans, they’re all very friendly and laid back, which are just two of the many opinions that I’ve heard coworkers voicing as if they were proven facts, based off of their prior experiences.
All of this having been said though, I’ve met many open-minded and cultured Chinese people in my time here, and have also seen many non-white expats build great and happy lives for themselves in China. With enough patience and effort, I definitely believe that it’s possible for somebody to overcome the stigmas that come with their skin color and still manage to forge some great opportunities for themselves. While I’m thankful that I’ve always been on the positive side of the racism over here, in some ways I feel that because of this, I also have no right to write about these issues that I’ve witnessed here. I’m definitely guilty of using my novelty and appeal to my advantage too, but more than anything, feel that it’s essential to getting all that can out of your time in China. While the stereotyping and ignorance can get on my nerves, often becoming downright offensive, this white ghost is doing what he can to make the most out of it!