Thursday, December 29, 2005

On being white in Asia.

Being a white person in East Asia is a strange experience.

One is for all intents and purposes an eternal guest and is treated as such by the man on the street. You may be living in the country for 20 years but to the average Joe Asian, when he sees you, it is like you have just arrived. He starts speaking to you in English or if he does not speak English, he either uses signs or avoids you altogether. He asks you questions that one would only ask a tourist. Somehow, they simply cannot fathom the fact that one is living in their country permanently. You are just so unusual, they simply cannot accept that. They want to be a host and they want you to be the guest.

With very few exceptions, being accepted as "one of them" is an impossibility. You can never be Chinese or Japanese or Korean. Or Vietnamese, Thai or Cambodian. You can be seen as a Filipino or a Singaporean, though but it has to be among very educated classes- and they may, in fact, one day, see you as such. The man on the street, again though, will see you as this permanent tourist no matter what you do. From this point of view, even if you feel that the country has become your "home" ,the general population will have hard time accepting the fact that you now belong there.

Having said that, the group of people that you know, your friends and colleagues will come to accept you quite well. The people are generally quite polite and non-confrontational. The food is delicious. If you are a man, you will find it easier to score with local women than back home as you will be seen as someone exotic and virile.

Being poor in Asia is not a good thing but being white often compensates for it. In some countries, such as Japan, for one, not being rich may not matter so much socially but it may matter if you need to get a good place to live or send your kids to an international school.

In Malaysia, Thailand or the Philippines, being poor will not make you too many friends with the locals as they are not used to seeing poor white people and do not know how to deal with them. Mostly, it will be amazement followed by eventual feeling uncomfortable on their part.

Asians as a rule seem to be quite insular and have a view of the world and your role in it that may seem as narrow to you. They call you a “foreigner” but they do not call other Asians- foreigners. They simply call them Koreans or Filipinos but never “foreigners“. Also, they assume you to be a certain way even though you are nothing like that. As far as they are concerned, only people with narrow eyes and jet black straight hair eat rice and use chopsticks. All white people eat bread and use fork and spoon. Never mind the fact that you grew up on Chinese take-always back in New York- you will have hard time convincing people that in your country there are Asian restaurants and Asian people. It is a common thing to be sitting at an eatery in Tokyo, eating your meal and having a middle aged lady at the end of the room stare at you as you use chopsticks, and then watching her start clapping while smiling and nodding in surprise and admiration. Look at that foreigner! He is using chopsticks! Wow! Never mind that Asians can use all the Western utensils and wear jeans. That is normal. Your eating with chopsticks is not normal, however. These things get on one's nerves after a while, but there is absolutely nothing you can do about them as the number of people holding such stereotypes is simply astronomical.

You can become fluent in the language but, again, to a local stranger who has just met you, it is so shocking that he may not even register it. You will be speaking in Chinese or another Asian language and he will staring at you with his mouth agape and not knowing how to react.

I remember I was once sitting in a Thai restaurant and watching a program in Thai- a language that I speak quite well. Suddenly, an employee walks out of the kitchen and without looking at me or even saying hello, walks up to the TV and changes the channel to CNN. Then he walks out just as unceremoniously. "A white person understanding Thai is an impossibility, we had better change it to CNN- so that he could understand". Such is their train of thought. Again, not everybody is like that, but such an attitude is very common and is almost a daily occurrence when you meet people there whom you don't know.

I remember I was once in Manila in the company of two middle aged ladies, one Japanese and one Filipino. I had my guitar with me and proceeded to sing a Japanese song to them. I then translated the Japanese lyrics into Tagalog. There was a Japanese word "karasu" which means "raven". I explained to the Filipino lady that "raven" in Tagalog was "uwak". She nodded, then chuckled, and then, chuckled again. "Uwak"- "bwahahaha". She was nodding and giggling. I asked her what was the matter. The answer was
" Because your face... it is American...but you say, bwahahaha- uwak, ha-ha-ha." It was a strange, almost surreal experience. Never mind the fact that their faces were not "American". It was OK for them to speak English, and I was not laughing, but as soon as I used the word "uwak: it evoked chuckles.

Some white people do a wise thing by not learning the local languages, speaking English to everybody and not trying to integrate. Unlike in America where such an attitude would be quite insulting, in Asia this is how many people expect you to act, and they accommodate you quite well if you behave like that. Many Westerners conduct themselves in just such a manner and act with superiority, and they gather nothing but admiration from the local population. Strange indeed.

One of my friends, an old Asia hand once told me, “One can never expect an Asian to treat you as an equal. Hence, unless one wants to be stepped on and scorned, one has no choice but to try and come off as being superior". Rudeness, of course is not tolerated anywhere, but being somewhat cocky pays off as people there seem to respect such a type. It also helps if one actually has the money and the power to justify such a self-view. Failing that, if one is on a short trip, one can fake being rich for the duration of one's stay.

The food is great and overall, notwithstanding the irritations described living in Asia is very enjoyable. However, after being there for months and years, it is quite refreshing to go to a place like Argentina and walk down the streets among crowds of people that look like you. In Asia, people will not approach you and ask you for directions, unless they are drunk. In Argentina they do. This makes you feel at home as people come up to you and speak to you in Spanish assuming that you are a local. But one becomes just one in many there. In Asia, although one is somewhat of a mild freak of nature, one can enjoy a weird semi-celebrity existence and keep tasting local hospitality ad infinitum.


Steve said...

I guess it just goes to show that "racism" is not a uniquely American phenomenon. And it's not always white against black or asian either. Racism can take many forms - everything from alarming KKK racism down to seemingly harmless assumptions. Assimilation, in my view, does not and will not ever work in American society. Asians, for example, are fundamentally different than white americans. Asians look different, speak a different language, hold different cultural values, and so on. Asians realize this of course and that is why they tend to mix among their own. White americans see this as being aloof. Asians see this as simply coming to the realization that whites will never be asian and asians will never be white. It doesn't mean we can't get along it just means that we are different. Trying to get everyone to become "american" (whatever that is) is folly.

The result has been the emergence of sub-cultures. Hip-hop music is an example. Now I don't listen to that music and don't pretent to be an expert but here's my take on it. Young african-american and latino kids feel left out of traditional amerian society. To many of them the american dream is just that - a dream. So they set out to create their own culture. They dressed differently, spoke differently, listened to different music. It was a culture that didn't require money to enter (unlike the american dream). Of course it didn't take long for the rich suburban white kids to glom onto it, thus depriving it of it's exclusivity. Now MTV has latched onto it and found a way to make money off it. Hip-hop is now, to the dismay of it's early founders, every bit as corporate as the rest of society. Just like the hippie movement, it got swallowed up by corporate america.

Asian culture, on the other hand, is much more traditional and slower to change. When I was in asia I experienced the same things you did. I was never offended by it, I just considered it a curious cultural phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Assimilation is a relative phenomenon, not absolute. Since the US was built by the English first, those who most closely approximated the English would assimilate the fastest. With others it would work slower and would require more effort. Assimilation of Blacks?Asians/Hispanics was never achieved because they could never 'look WASP'.

So, instead, hyphenated integration was invented- Black American, Hispanic American, Asian American. This did not assimilate people completely but it still bestowed on them some kind of Americanness. Plus since America is an immigrant nation, all people born there are at least by ideal and by law, Americans.

In Asia, the societies are not immigrant, there is no " right of the soil" i.e. automatic birth citizenship and nationality equals race. Japanese are japanese because they are yellow, have Japanese faces and speak Japanese. End of teh story. There, neither assimilation nor integration can take place. Unless you mix blood over many generations.

Same in most European societies except for Britain and France who are trying to pretend that Black and Arab citizens there are French.

However, while the American model assimilates minorities some 50%, teh Japanese 0%, mixed societies in South America do a much better job. While not perfect, in Brazil things are much better and so they are in Panama. You will be assimilated some 90%. Good enough.

Mr. Middle-Aged said...

Sounds like paradise to me.