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The Unintended Chinese Racism

In my last job, I had to travel a lot, and very frequently to China. All in all, I travelled to China 8 times, multiple times each year.

Although my Chinese hosts and colleagues have been the most hospitable people I have met, I couldn’t help but notice the unnatural (to me) behaviour of many Chinese people on the streets whom I didn’t know.

A bit of background – most Chinese do not have much facial or body hair. This is not racist, just a fact. Chinese men with proper beards are very uncommon, mostly because they genetically can’t grow beards. I not only have a full beard, I also have a shock of (mostly) unkempt hair, which makes my appearance definitely non-Chinese.

Chinese men playing Mahjong. PC Uncycloedia

The first time I landed at China was at Xiamen., which is a cosmopolitan city with a lot of travellers and foreigners. Not till my second trip to China, when I left Shanghai Pudong airport to go to the railway station at Hongqiao, did I notice something odd: 2 old men openly pointing at me, smiling and discussing my appearance. I gave them a polite nod, smiled and went on my way.

Fast forward a few more trips later and I am leaving my hotel at Changzhou to take a walk around my favourite Xintiandi park. I hope there aren’t too many people there because I know what will happen.

  • The old men will openly point at me and comment at my appearance (among themselves)
  • The young kids will stare. Some will burst into tears, while others would keep staring without blinking till I am no longer in their line of sight. Their parents will hurriedly tell them not to stare.

The only people who don’t exhibit this kind of behaviour is young people between 18-40.

First timers to China will classify this is blatant racism. I, however, feel that this “racism” is borne more from ignorance and curiosity rather than bad intent, like in the west. I have had an old government official in Australia tell me openly that he didn’t like my face. I have had people ignore me openly at Vienna when I asked them for directions. This kind of racism is borne from ill will and hate.

I wouldn’t classify the Chinese behaviour in the same category. I believe most of them don’t know any better. Most of these people have never seen a full bearded man and it is genuine shock that they are experiencing.

The Chinese are a self contained people who don’t have as much exposure to western media (partly by choice, partly by force) as people from other countries. Also, these incidents are more frequent in the smaller (by Chinese standards) cities than bigger and more cosmopolitan cities. It is understandable that many will find my appearance odd and unnatural.

Overall, I can say that these incidents have not dampened my love for China and my desire to travel there again, in the near future.