It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks

It’s with heavy regret that I must admit it is unfortunate I was born Chinese. If that seems like a self-defeating statement from someone who doesn’t respect himself, well that’s not the case; I love being Chinese and being part of a deep and storied culture, just as I love the fact that I get to witness in my lifetime the rise to prominence of a great nation whose time has been long in the making. You know – my people. However, my ethnicity was never so problematic for me before I came to China a few years ago; you see, I have the unfortunate disadvantage of being a foreigner who looks Chinese.

I am Chinese – of Cantonese heritage and culture – but here in Shanghai no one else seems to know that. I get asked everyday, “Where are you from?” and “Are you a Chinese national?” because of my poor Putonghua, non-local mannerisms, and my 气氛,or aura. I am wary of the suspicion local Chinese have of foreigners, especially of Japanese, but when people ask me and I answer I always say “Yes”; I was born here, I grew up Chinese, and I’ll die Chinese as well. I can’t change it.

As a professional jazz musician, I live a lifestyle that is very different from most 9-to-5ers. I don’t deal with rush hour, my coffee breaks are done with beer, and it’s great to have a job that can fulfill you artistically. However, a lifestyle I never thought I’d experience is one similar is the oppression black jazz musicians had to endure in the swing era, in which the prevailing racism of U.S society treated blacks as second-class citizens who weren’t able to earn as much as whites or even be allowed to walk in the front door of a hotel. In this case, the issue is one of reverse-racism.

I was called to substitute work recently at a new wine bar called the Brick; the original musician, a foreigner who looks foreign, needed someone to take his place while he was on vacation and called me. The gig was a duo with a singer named Eddy Goltz and our first set went well: applause was made and fun was had. However, on the set break the manager Judy Yang Yi had a conversation in which she suggested to Eddy that I receive less pay than the normal rate since I have the unfortunate condition commonly known as “looking Chinese” (it’s true, I do).

Eddy was upset. He refused these conditions and went further to explain why, citing the history of American civil rights as well as the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. The one line I overheard him say was “I don’t care if he is an Eskimo,” in which he explained what’s important to him is not the way someone looks but instead their skill and experience. For a musician, to put it in obvious terms, it’s all about the music. This didn’t go well with the owner of the Brick, Wang, who felt that Eddy’s refusal to pay me less money as a Chinese person as well as Eddy’s telling Judy why she was wrong to do so was in fact an insult against him. Wang threw a fit in his own bar: saying that Eddy had “no manners”, Wang would further shout loudly that Eddy was a 王八蛋, pointing aggressively and saying the English words “fuck you” to Eddy clearly enough so that he would understand. This cleared out his own bar and Eddy and I both left as well seeing that there was nothing left to do.

Maybe there is some kind of misunderstanding somewhere, but what is clear is that I was fired in the middle of a gig without pay, that Eddy refused to compromise in a situation that he understood as corrupt, and that owner Wang saw to it that no further discourse was possible by playing the inconsolable victim. All the same, let’s identify three main issues here:

1. Should two men of equal experience and skill receive the same compensation for a job they can both do equally well if they do not look similar (my issue)?
2. Do foreigners have the right to come to China and impose their values when their morals and principles are challenged (Eddy’s issue)?
3. The presence of foreigners in China is commanding and influential. The owner of Brick Wang may be thinking that a foreigner working in his bar is preferential to a Chinese because it connotes higher status and privilege, and so isn’t willing to pay as much for a Chinese to work there. Whether he or his clientele thinks this, doesn’t this old-fashioned style of thinking mean that you accept foreigners as being unequivocally better than Chinese and worthy of better pay, respect, and lifestyle (Wang’s issue)?

I think these are the key questions to which I have to answer “yes” to each one. First, as a foreigner with foreign education and training I should be paid like a foreigner, if one has to make a differentiation between the two. I don’t feel that my very presence is to trick anyone, yet often I feel as though I have to make some kind of excuse to explain myself as though my status as a Western Chinese is some kind of sham. I think Wang and Judy at the Brick feel like I cheated them by not announcing before I came that I unfortunately look Chinese, but I did do the same job as the original musician – the color of my skin notwithstanding, shouldn’t I receive the same pay as him?

Eddy’s issue is less clear, but it must be said that he wasn’t trying to impose his morals upon others so much as trying to preserve his own. In fact, he was exercising the one power we have left to us – the power to say “no”. The fact that Eddy said “no” to this arrangement should be emphasized by the fact that his former employment at the Brick used to provide for half of his month’s income, a fact just as astonishing as the fact that Eddy and Wang are old friends who have known each other for years. By being in the middle of a rock and a hard place, Eddy had to choose against the system of corruption that exists in China; while that may seem to be an insult to Chinese who live this way, Eddy is just citing history and precedents made by first world countries where this type of behavior is prohibited by laws and proscribed naturally by most citizens.

And lastly, Wang’s issue is that specifically that of reverse-racism. While one may take the perspective that Eddy is a foreigner who is spreading foreign values and ideas and not being culturally sensitive, it is evident that the person who is standing up for Chinese equal rights is the one and the same Eddy. The person who is oppressing Chinese with an out of date world view is the owner Wang who does not support Chinese people by treating them as second-class people worthy of lower pay. I know foreigners come from a long way to get here and bring with them their vaunted experience and technology, but Chinese moving to other countries will have to settle for accepting low-paying jobs below their education and experience for becoming that societies’ willing manual -laborers. That’s what happened to my parents. Chinese have made other nations great with this work ethic, like building the railroad across the U.S.A and Canada, but will also tolerate insufferable work conditions and low pay as being the “way it is”.

Well, I live in China and this is how Chinese treat me. Over a hundred years ago China suffered humiliating defeat from foreign powers at the time of the Opium War; after WWII, this foreign dominance was cleared from China and Chinese became their own masters. Today, in the middle of China’s amazing growth as an economic and political power one would expect Chinese pride to be high. However, nationalism is one part of a people’s pride; another is self-respect.

China: no one is holding a gun to your head right now, yet Chinese still act as victims of your own device. Wake up; respect yourselves.

It’s within my own power to say no. I can always go back home, where I am by far treated more fairly and with more courtesy. Yet, I remain here for now because I want to see the real change that dignifies a true great country: a confident people who love themselves. I’m here because I want to find that I’m amongst my people, Chinese people; however, the Chinese part of me is unfortunately making it difficult to stay here among the same Chinese people.

China: help me find the home I’ve never had by loving yourselves, so that I can love myself too.

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  1. zack

    Great post. As always, it is up to the people to choose their own paths, rather than waiting for an official decree.


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