The Loss of Egalitarianism

The cabs pulled over to the curb where we were standing in the rain. An employee from the computer store was with Bethany and me because he wanted to help us set up the wireless internet router that Bethany had recently purchased. The first cabbie said "15," and I shook my head. I told the employee that cabs should be 10 from this part of the city, especially if they choose to avoid the meter. "Meter or 10," I always say, shaming the cab driver to the realization that I know a cab ride is 9 by the meter.

When I have knowledge of a fair price and explain that to a vendor or to service personnel, I expect to be treated reasonably.

The next cab stopped. "How much?"


Ridiculous. We prepared to take the next cab that was 15 because arguing would get us nowhere. And that's what the driver of the next cab said: "15." We climbed in the backseat and I suddenly realized how clear the conversation was. The driver was talking to the computer store employee in excellent mandarin and I understood everything.

"It's normally 10, but since there are foreigners with you it's 15."

I was livid. This kind of attitude is pretty typical of a minority of Chinese people who feel culturally superior to foreigners. These thoughts run as deep as the rampant nationalism and fervent Mao cultism that still mystifies me.

The largest factor in my anger during this kind of situation is the loss of egalitarian spirit. When someone says to your face, "It's more for you because you are a foreigner," it hurts. But one of the reasons it hurts is a lifetime of being told that we are all equal.

It's safe to say that there are many attitudes towards westerners, all of which differ across socioeconomic and geographic lines. I have found that most Chinese people are extremely hospitable and that, as a foreigner, I often feel safer in China than America; the crime rate is much lower in China. This being said, I would like to address an issue that has always lingered awkwardly in the background - a sentiment held by many Chinese that underlies the big face and warm hospitality. I am speaking of discrimination toward foreigners.

As with most sensitive topics, I usually issue a preamble to clarify and contextualize this discussion. But then, as this discussion is based solely on the rare experiences of volunteers, I don't think the information is unfair or unwarranted.

On several occasions other volunteers have complained about similar issues:

A Chinese woman is angry with another Chinese person for helping a foreigner.

The constant question: “Can you use chopsticks?” as we are in the process of using them (they can’t imagine that a foreigner would be able to do something that is so culturally significant to them).

Attitudes toward the Japanese. There is a near-universal loathing of the Japanese people that is only tempered by the fact that Japan currently plays so little of a role in their affairs.

Even the words used to label people feel harsh and have negative connotations to the American ear: "foreigner" or "outside of country person."

At first I was willing to leave this topic alone. The blatant cheating in Vietnam left me so exhausted that China looked wonderful in comparison. But this kind of cheating seems to run deeper than a desire for money. It is almost a desire for revenge.

For decades China has been closed to foreigners, yet Americans, Europeans, and Japanese have bullied their way into the Chinese market. Footholds were established in various regions, all designed to implement political pressure through military occupation or establish trade routes to cash in on untapped wealth. All of this was done against China’s wishes and the opium war in the late 1800s seemed to epitomize this persecution of China.

The additional facts that China is universally homogenous and culturally so different add to a confused national attitude of resentment, fear and admiration (yes, all at once). Of course, these attitudes are changing as China’s economy continues to grow stronger and more people shift toward individualism.

As China becomes more of a player in the global economy, individualism and globalization will affect the attitudes of people here. This will happen first on the coast where people have more access to education, decent health care, and western ideas, slowly spreading inland as the provinces accumulate capital.

It's going to be an interesting 21st century.

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