Here’s the back story, why I’ve decided to start writing Chinglish Diaries, and why I’ve decided to discuss my personal experiences in the following months through the context of race and identity politics.
About 2 weeks ago, I get an invitation from a friend to attend an Oil & Gas conference in Dongyi City, Shandong Province, called the 5th China International Petroleum and Petrochemical Equipment & Technology Exhibition (CIPEE), which is hosted by China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), the government of Shandong Province, Shandong Council for the Promotion of International Trade, the government of Dongying City and Shengli Oil Field Administration. The invitation indicated that they are interested in hosting more foreign guests at the conference. I contact the main foreign guest coordinator and she sounds excited to get my call. After we speak, she asks that I send over my business card and resume by email, and she will email back with instructions on how to attend the conference. The whole 3-day event would be 免费 (mianfei – free) for foreigners.
Later that evening, she calls me back and asks: “Are you 华裔 (ethnically Chinese)?”
Stopped outside of a donkey burger restaurant, I answer yes somewhat apprehensively….
“对不起” she replies, “我们只是请真正的外国人”. We are only looking for REAL foreigners.
At this point I’m so angry I can’t even breathe. But it was her next question that was the 导火索 (last straw) for me: “你有别的外国朋友有兴趣参加吗?” Do you have other foreign friends who may like to come?
Trying to stay calm but failing, I asked her, “Does it matter if they even work in the O&G industry or what their credentials are, or do you just need a white face?” Her response, “无所谓.” Does not matter. I hung up.
Over dinner that night, it felt like my belly was on fire. It also didn’t help that the drunk Beijing men at the next table looked over to me an my friends (one other girl who is caucasian, and 2 caucasian males) and mistaken me yet again for a tour guide/call girl.
I’m sure that other Huayi can attest to the feeling, you’ve always sort of known that you don’t get treated like other foreigners in China, and although it sucks, as long as its not too in your face, you’re ok with it. But this is the first time that I’ve actually been dis-invited from something because of my face. The racism was so blatant this time that no amount of brushing off was going to make the hurt stop.
The sting is worse because the conference is being paid for by Shandong. This is my 老家 (laojia – ancestral home), the place where my father and my grandfather and their fathers came from. However, my ancestral home would rather pay a lot of money to have european looking foreigners show up at their conference regardless of whether or not they even care about the O&G industry in Shandong. But I, who has worked in the industry, gotten my Masters in energy policy, and am doing a Fulbright research project into oil and gas in China, cannot attend, because I don’t make a good photo-op.
So there you go, the reason why I started this blog. I vow that not every tale I tell here will be ugly, like the one above. I vow to also tell the good stories, of the common 老百姓 (laobaixing – ordinary people) I meet everyday on the streets who remind me how much I love China and its people.
So I’ll end this entry with a quote that I learned from my 老师 (laoshi – teacher), after I confided in her what had happened. I asked her, why do the Chinese 看不起 (kanbuqi – disrespect) its own people? She replied, it’s not that China does not respect China, it’s just that they care more about 面子 (mianzi- face), than substance. Then she gave me a 成语 (chengyu), a four/five character Chinese phrase that often comes from ancient Chinese stories conveying in a very succinct manner a key concept, aphorism, or idiom. She told me “千里马，伯乐” – a one-thousand league horse can only be recognized by BoLe. BoLe was a legendary connoisseur of horses who was once asked to pick the best horse in the world for the emperor, but when he picked the horse, it was a short stout pony with dirty hair and small legs. The Emperor got very angry and dismissed BoLe and the horse, because he felt that the horse was far too ugly to be the best horse in the world. But then BoLe road the horse in a race against the Emperor’s best horse, and the ugly horse that BoLe picked won. My teacher’s message? – I may be an ugly little pony, but I will still go one-thousand leagues and win the race in life, as long as there are BoLe people in the world who can recognize me for what I am.
So there you have it, my name is Sophie, and I’m an ugly little one-thousand league pony. Watch out China…. here I come.