Today I celebrate my one-month anniversary in China. It’s an exciting feeling, and I am slowly but surely learning how to navigate my way around the rural town I am living in for the next several weeks. This specific area is a beach town, and filled with many locals who are most often surprised or intrigued to see me walking down the street. The toddler-response is the best: confusion, intrigue, excitement.
Over the past week or so, I have started to focus on what this attention means and how it actually plays out in the bigger context of human interaction. In an interesting twist of fate, I have gone from a confident traveler to a self-conscious visitor in just a matter of days. Don’t get me wrong, I was prepared for this reality. Before taking flight, many warned me that being a foreigner in China would attract bewildered stares and unprovoked attention (add being 6’2” to that equation and you have me, a bearded white man, trolling through the town). But this past week, I experienced several incidents where I would pass someone, and following stoic eye-contact, be aggressively examined up and down. Was it my shoes? My large torso? My receding hairline? What was attracting the negative attention? Even my experience with cab drivers has been a bit unsettling. In America, it takes an act of God (or Uber) to hail a cab, however here, cabbies will honk at me, roll up to me on the street, and often yell something out the window to catch my attention. I’m rarely looking for a ride, however in their minds, it seems that being foreign also means I am in constant need of a lift somewhere. This happens over and over again. Rinse, wash, repeat, each time I venture into the city. Bearded. White guy. Let’s pause here for a moment.
Aside from being a huge, bearded white guy in Asia, I could also probably share a few dozen North-American stories of being called, “FAGGOT,” by passersby, or having truck loads of dudes (yes, 99.9% of the time it is another guy) yell something really homophobic or heteronormative at me. To save you hours of reading, the experience which resonates most with me is a time when I was working an event with a few colleagues while in graduate school. Said-colleagues and I were standing on the corner of a busy campus intersection, and our task was to greet busloads of students as they were dropped off and headed to another event on campus. Easy task, and this was my second year in this same post, so I was basically a professional bus-greeter. Before we knew it, an SUV-load of ass holes drove by and, “FAGGOTS,” was yelled from the window. I share more of this story in a previous post inspired by street-harassment, however the end-moment here is that one of my friends was horrified, while a lesbian-friend and I just shrugged it off with an, it-happens-all-the-time, resolution. With each reference of this story, I am reminded of the harm words can do in action and also in reflection. And though not as aggressive as someone slinging hate speech out of a window, the constant attention I have received from being white in China has certainly been something to pause on.
I consider myself a strong yet sensitive person, and since arriving in China, I am easily reminded of the reality of feeling different and constantly self-aware. As I continue to reflect on this revisited reality, I am also strikingly more conscious of the same discomfort that continues to resonate for many of my peers back in the States. This type of frustration is not solely reserved for large, bearded white guys in Asia – in fact, this frustration is also nothing new. We can all probably agree this is a constant struggle for many populations (race demographics, LGB individuals, transgendered individuals, religious misunderstandings around paraphernalia, etc., and of course, women), and at times even turns quite ugly in its resolve. I recently came across a powerful piece of writing, which highlighted some of the very feelings I have related to street harassment (and also street crime, hate crimes, hate speech, etc.). This piece was written by Zachary Wilcha, and the following sentiments best capture some of my feelings as they relate to the incident which recently occurred in Pennsylvania:
“While people are shocked by the white gang of hooligans simply for being the color they are, you’re not shocked. You know something they don’t. You know that the last group of people you’d want to run into at the end of the night is a group of drunk, straight, white men full of equal parts insecurity and liquid confidence.”
“You’ll continue to look over your shoulder because you have to. Sometimes you’ll see people walking toward you and wonder if today is your day… You push all these thoughts away as you try to fall asleep. You have to. You’re exhausted.”
I feel in complete solidarity with these ideas, and if not verbatim, have said some variation of these statements multiple times to myself over the past several years. Wilcha’s writing takes me back to some dark places, and I encourage all those to read his piece with an open mind and an open heart. These are real experiences. Real life experiences. People’s lives. And, although the stares and whistles I get on the street are not ideal, they certainly do not compare to the unjust treatment we are seeing played out with various other identity groups.
In this new month, can we please commit to creating a safer space for people to walk freely without objectification? In this new month, can we please commit to confronting our communities on their bias? In this new month, can we please lose the buzzy lingo and fun campaigns and just get real and honest about some of the unjust treatment existing in the world today? Finally, can we please remember that even though new issues and hot topics arise, they are not a scapegoat to forget about previous and still-grieving injustices (Philadelphia, Ferguson, ISIS, etc., and any other group I am marginalizing by using, “etc.”)?
Sure, I started off talking about my experience as a white guy in China, and to be honest, I’m barely shaken by these moments. But the reality I am seeing back home is oddly parallel to my experience being a foreigner in another country (please put that thought together, if you get what I’m saying). Difference is continually approached with hostility, negativity, and unjust action. Let’s find peace, let’s find conversation, let’s find resolve.
*More than my own experience, it is probably most important to confirm that I will never understand what it feels like to be a woman, nor will I truly understand what it feels like to be harassed because of my gender or gender identity. Though I do know what it feels like to be harassed because I’m different, this piece is not intended to be a comparison of which identity has it harder (oppression competition, if you will). This piece is an attempt at processing my own racial identity development while in another country, and also while grappling with the incidents occurring back home.