On Pretending I'm Not Chinese
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On Pretending I’m Not Chinese

The middle-aged man standing nearby flings his question casually at me, as if he knows me, as if I weren’t just another stranger waiting at the bus stop.

“I don’t understand whatever it is you’re saying,” I reply coldly. It’s Mandarin, of course – “Hey, d’you know what time the next bus is supposed to arrive?” – but I’m not about to let on that I understand. It’s cold and rainy on my last day in Berlin, the bus to Tegel Airport is late, and I’m irritated by how this Chinese national – like so many others I’ve encountered while traveling – is assuming by my appearance that I speak his language.

I understand that instinctive desire to seek out the familiar when one is in a foreign environment – when traveling alone in Europe, my eyes were instantly drawn to anyone who looked like they could be Asian too. But just as a Caucasian on the street could be French or German or Swedish, someone with East Asian features could easily be a Korean, Vietnamese, Hongkonger, or even a local who doesn’t speak whatever language they’re “supposed” to speak. It would be perfectly fine if I were actually in China (Koreans assume I’m Korean too), but it’s rude and degrading to assume anyone who looks like you is one of your people.

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In most cases, the Chinese travelers I encounter are polite and merely asking for directions. There have been times, however, when they behave like we should stick together in a cold, foreign land because we are all huárén – Chinese people. It’s this Sinocentric mindset that riles me the most, for even though I’m of Chinese ethnicity I am proudly Singaporean.

When in China…

On a recent trip to Zhejiang I stopped by Haining, a city known for its wholesale leather goods malls. My travel companions and I were advised to haggle as much as possible, but were warned that the ethnic Chinese among us would not be able to get as much of a bargain. True enough, one of us got a bag for 160 RMB while an Indian lady got the same bag slashed all the way down to 80 RMB (The starting price was a ludicrous 800 RMB).

You’d have thought that being a fellow huárén would help, but no – whenever I walked away in the midst of price-slashing, shopkeepers shouted after me angrily: “You should be more sincere!” “You’re being unreasonable!” “Good riddance, you wasted my time!”

I wonder what would have happened if I’d pretended to be Korean.