I recently read an article, published in this space, by French citizen Patricia Hérau. In it Ms Hérau relates that she heard a Beijing traffic coordinator scold a wayward Chinese pedestrian with the words "You are no Chinese!" and then liken him to a pig or dog. She also describes how a taxi driver, attempting to praise her Mandarin, told her she was "a bit more than half [i.e., 60%] a Chinese." On the basis of these incidents Ms Hérau concludes that Chinese consider themselves culturally superior to for-eigners (or as she puts it, Chinese consider themselves human, but see the rest of us as "pigs and dogs"). In my view, Ms Hérau's experiences simply don't support this conclusion.
Ms Hérau construes the traffic coordinator's comment ("You are no Chinese!") as "simple racism, implying that foreigners don't obey the rules." I take the traffic coordinator's comment (which was very rude, to be sure) to mean something quite different. Given the current emphasis on good citizenship and public responsibility (i.e., "building spiritual civilization with Chinese characteristics"), it strikes me as more a call to civic virtue than anything else. It could also plausibly be interpreted as a way of sarcastically questioning the language skills of the Chinese pedestrian, the way an equally rude American might say to another American "Hey, don't you understand English?!" What's absent from the comment, however, is any reference to foreigners. Thus, to infer the implication, as Ms Hérau does, that "foreigners don't obey the rules" says more about Ms Hérau's biases than it does about the Chinese man's. After all, she is the one positing the "inverse relationship"①between the notions of being Chinese and being foreign.
Turning to her taxi encounter, I am again surprised at Ms Hérau's conclusion. I would think that someone with her degree of experience in China would have a better appreciation of the intent behind the driver's words. I think she misses the forest for the trees: looking so narrowly at the concept and the words used to express it, she fails to grasp friendly intent. She again draws a much larger conclusion (about "humanity"!?) than this particular comment seems to support. Here, being "Chinese" is merely a metaphor, and a reasonable one at that, for Chinese language (and cultural) fluency. During my time in China I've had many friends tell me that I'm already "half Chinese"; I have always taken this as a warm-hearted compliment.
The fact that Ms Hérau's conclusions do not follow logically from her experiences, however, does not detract from the legitimacy of her larger point - namely, that historically many Chinese have tended to regard the outside world as somehow inferior to China. Though I dis-agree with Ms Hérau's reasoning, I understand her when she laments "the outdated Chinese way of looking at for-eigners" and the failure of Chinese "to view foreigners symmetrically with Chinese". In my 1997 book, PacificReflections: EssaysonChinese and AmericanSocietyandCulture, I made essentially the same point: "The clarity with which Chinese tend to divide peoplesintos'Chinese' and 'foreigners' - reallysintos'us' and 'them' - is striking and, in many ways, disturbing. ...The fact is, Chinese rarely speak about a foreign resident of China without reference to the word 'foreign'. ...What makes this phenomenon disturbing rather than merely curious is the negativity traditionally associated with foreignness in the Chinese mind." One need only think of such well-worn Chinese expressions as "to bear an awful hardship" (shou yang zui), "to make a fool of oneself" (chu yang xiang) and "to be outlandish" (yang li yang qi) to see that this is so.
Where I think Ms Hérau goes astray is in her failure to recognize the tremendous progress many Chinese have made in moving beyond this constrictive and counter-pro-ductive mentality. At the time I published my book, there was still a dual pricing system whereby foreigners paid much more than Chinese for airline and train tickets, entry to tourist sites, and the like. I was delighted to see, upon my return to China in 2002 after a five-year absence, that the authorities had abolished this offensive and highly discriminatory practice. I think this is a meaningful and very positive change, one of many that I've seen since my return to Beijing.
So I could understand if Ms Hérau had taken offense because the taxi driver charged her more for her cab ride than he would have charged a Chinese - but he didn't. Instead, he made the mistake of paying her a compliment (well deserved, I'm sure)"with Chinese characteristics". No Chinese I know would have taken offense at such a well- intended remark; Chinese are far more courteous to foreigners than that. And that's why I think the cab driver was wrong about Ms Hérau after all:"60% Chinese" is much too high a score!