I recently bumped into a fellow Canadian as we waited for an elevator. We had a pleasant exchange about respective birthplaces and length of time in China.
We happened to be going to the same place, enhancing the delightful coincidence. I pushed the button for the fourth floor, but he told me the office was on the seventh. Unfortunately, our next simple exchange showed that our shared nationality didn’t mean we were likeminded.
It was just a simple comment, the kind I hear all the time, but one that forces me to bite my tongue.
I don’t understand how some people think that sharing an exotic experience, such as living in China, entitles them to say something derogatory and expect concurrence just because we’re in the same boat.
As the elevator doors closed, I tried to correct my mistake and double pressed the button for the fourth floor, hoping it would erase the selections and prevent an unnecessary stop. Unfortunately, it was an older model and it didn’t work.
The next words he said told me everything I needed to know about his attitude toward China. "Not going to happen in this country," he said nonchalantly. Sure, it was just a simple observation, but to me it immediately showed his sense of superiority.
Understanding the better part of valor, I usually let offhanded comments like this slide, but not this time.
"Interesting you’d say that, I’ve only ever seen the ’cancel-floor’ option on elevators in China. I think it was invented by a Chinese elevator company," I said.
Okay, that is enough of the elevator story.
Studies show that we all carry around built-in, implicit bias on just about every topic. They are almost impossible to overcome, but we should strive to recognize when we are feeding our prejudice.
Too often, a long-term "China experience" seems to entitle foreigners to walk around with a giant chip on their shoulder.
I’ve seen how this attitude evolves. The newly arrived are keenly interested in this very different place. Soon the novelty wears off, and the formerly interesting differences become objects of ridicule. Then the yearning for the way things are back home begins, and the "expert" expat critic emerges.
I know this critique is more than a little rough, and I admit that a rant can feel good, but mine are never in the tone of "them" against "us." I never say "the Chinese" or use collective pronouns that encompass 1.3 billion people. Please stop yourself when you are tempted to say, "the Chinese" or "these people." It is chauvinistic and arrogant.
Those of us from multicultural nations should know better, and this is why I can partially excuse the stereotyping I hear from Chinese friends about foreigners. It starts with grouping all laowai as one.
While checking out at a local supermarket the other day, I was forced to feign some serious outrage. The clerks had shared an observation about one of my purchases. One clerk said, "They (foreigners) all like to eat those things," the others agreed, not noticing the same item was also in the basket of the Chinese person behind me.
"Who are ’they’?" I bellowed in mock indignation and good comic relief. "Can one person really represent all others?" I said, lecturing the slightly embarrassed and chuckling clerks. I am pretty sure they got the point.