Monday, March 7, 2011

"Whites are from America. Blacks are from Africa"

"Foreigners speak English. Whites are from America. Blacks are from Africa."

These are some of the most common stereotypes heard by foreigners living in mainland China. This afternoon I heard them strung together into one statement, made by a mother to her young son on the 635 bus across Beijing. She was responding to his finger-pointing and shrieks of "look Mommy, a foreigner."

While I've heard each sentence uttered separately before, this was the first time I have heard them all together. After I caught my breathe I said hello to the child and politely explained that there are many different languages spoken by foreigners: French, Spanish, German, others. I also told him that Americans are not all white - some are black, some are yellow, some are red. Not all black people are from Africa either.

People standing near us were listening in, of course. Some of them probably didn't believe me. That's their choice. I've planted a new idea in their head. If they meet foreigners who don't speak English in the future it won't be a complete shock.

After the mother and son reached their stop I took their seat. There was another foreigner on the bus, a black man. He didn't speak English. From the Central African Republic, he speaks French and has studied Russian. No Chinese yet. A young girl standing near us was obviously straining to understand so I explained we were speaking French and the man doesn't speak English. She and her mother were curious, as the girl studies English in school so they had thought she'd be able to understand at least a few words. It was a great example of foreigners (in Chinese: 'other country people') not speaking English.

Stereotypes about foreigners are regional. In Harbin, near the northern border with Siberia, my friends and I were assumed to be Russian. All bets are off in Hong Kong and Macau. They've seen foreigners of many shades and speaking a variety of languages.

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