Confronting a Racist

Posted: October 14, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: , ,

One of the things I love most about being in China’s countryside is that people are usually more curious about me than anything else. I don’t get the patronizing “HAAALLLLLLOOOOO!” cat calls that I do in the cities. And I don’t deal so much with people ignorantly informing me about the habits of all foreigners based on whatever stupid movies they’ve seen. In the countryside I usually just get earnest questions and hospitality. This is why I was so surprised in a small village last week when I received my first racial slur.

My girlfriend and I were riding our bikes past a group of four women and one man in their early-50s. As we went by, they stopped talking and just stared at us until we’d gone about 20 meters past. We then heard the man loudly say, “Look at the two guizi.”

Guizi, meaning “devil” or “ghost,” is a derogatory term for foreigners. It was a popular fixture at the recent anti-Japanese protests. I’ve read about foreigners (especially in the 80s and 90s) frequently being called this but I’d never actually heard it directed at me. I’ve experienced hostile comments that were racially-motivated before, but never been called a guizi…at least not to my face.

I turned my bike around and confirmed with my girlfriend that she’d heard it too. I can’t say I really felt hurt or offended, but surprising people with the fact that I’ve understood them talking about me is one of my guilty pleasures in China. In this instance, it could be especially interesting.

I pulled up to the group and asked in Chinese, “Who called us guizi?!”

Everyone looked to the man (confirming to us that it had indeed been him) and burst into the laughter that’s typical when people realize that the monkey can speak.

I got louder, showing I wasn’t amused, and zeroed in on the man.

“Did you call us guizi?!”

He held an uncomfortable smile and looked to the other women as a few other neighbors stuck their heads out to see what was happening. I softened my tone and stayed straddled on my bike a good five meters away so as to avoid the appearance of physically intimidating him.

“I heard you call us guizi. Would you like to call me that directly now?”

“You didn’t hear clearly,” he said, still with the uncomfortable smile.

“Ah, now that you realize we understood you, you’re afraid to directly call me that?” I said.

“Where are you guys from?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“Nevermind that, we both heard you say guizi. You all heard it too right?” I asked, looking to the women.

They came to his aid, repeating his line that we just didn’t hear clearly.

“Then what did you say?”

“I should call you sir and madam,” he replied.

“Oh, now you become very polite. You should say that, but you didn’t.”

“You didn’t hear clearly.”

“Whatever. You should be careful. We guizi aren’t stupid.”

I rode away, satisfied that his cowering had been sufficiently highlighted to his neighbors.

As a white American male born to a middle-class family, I can’t pretend like prejudice (or anything else for that matter) has disadvantaged me in any way. Pushing the issue and purposely making a man lose face who likely has been disadvantaged was probably immature and unnecessary. And I probably came off just as badly as he did to the other villagers, reinforcing the foreign bully stereotype.

But still, I’m having a hard time regretting it. After being surrounded by racist bile at the anti-Japanese protests recently, it was very enlightening to see how quickly this man changed his tune when confronted face-to-face by the butt of his racism.

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  1. Ching says:

    Eric, I think you’re right. Calling somebody a racial slur typically shows that the person is a coward anyways… Someone who is afraid of other cultures, languages, anybody who’s different from themselves. Clearly, this man is a coward not just by making a racial slur while you were speeding away on the bike, thinking that there will be no repercussions from it, But also by the fact that he was too cowardly to standup to a face-to-face confrontation.

    As a Chinese who immigrated to middle of Kansas as a child, I’ve had my share of racial slurs too. In the last 20 years, I’ve slowly learned that making the person see what they’re actually saying embarrasses them, sometimes even horrifies them. I guess some of them never realized they were being racist.

    I am thinking that you took the right course here… Doing no lasting harm, but teaching the man a lesson.

    • James says:

      @ Ching,

      I agree with you – from a Western standpoint, he did a good thing. He did no lasting harm and taught a lesson to all who heard him.


      From a Chinese national’s viewpoint, in a culture where guilt plays almost no role, and shame plays a huge role, the one who points out shame is the problem.

      From a PRC national’s viewpoint, the man did something a little bit shameful, but when it is publicly pointed out as shameful – that is compounding the shame, and causing a problem.
      The person who pointed it out is a troublemaker, and dangerous.

      The women tried to lower the shame in the situation by repeating the man’s line of, “You didn’t hear clearly.” for two reasons (1) he’s a local and locals are always supported over outsiders, and (2) pointing out shame publicly is a good way to start a fight that neither side will back down from until the loss of face (or percieved social status) has been made good or smoothed over.

      Eric does smooth over the shame a little bit by saying, “We guizi aren’t stupid.” and using ‘guizi’ to refer to himself, but from the viewpoint of the locals, I’m sure that they view the foreigner (Eric) as a troublemaker because he is publicly compounding the shame.

    • Ching says:

      Now that is an interesting thought, James. I confess that the viewpoint you described is a bit of a surprise to me… Although I find it entirely plausible. Perhaps I have been in US for so long, that I did not view the incident as a Chinese national would. Or perhaps I was from Hong Kong, and of course the culture there is somewhat different than mainland China.

      I am trying to sort through memories of my interactions with other Chinese on guilt versus shame. But of course my interactions have always been with other Chinese who have been in the US for a long time or other Hong Kongers.

      I think Eric would’ve been considered an outsider, regardless of whether he confronted the man or not. And as you said, being an outsider, the locals are always going to be side with their neighbors, whether they agree with them or not. I wonder what the reaction would be if Eric’s girlfriend was the one who confronted the man. One of the things that surprised me is that the man called them both this racial slur, despite Eric’s girlfriend being Chinese. To me, he clearly mean to use this term insulting manner since he called her the same just for being with him. If she had confronted him, would she be considered an outsider as well, with the same implications of guilt versus shame that you put forth? I wonder.

  2. James says:

    I think the likely reason that the man called them both the slur is:
    1 – They were likely riding somewhat new multi-gear bikes, and out in the countryside, most people ride old single-gear bikes.
    2 – They were likely wearing helmets, and perhaps even reflective biking gear – something I’ve never seen any local do, anywhere in China outside of HK. Ever. In more than a decade of living in China. Nobody wears a helmet to ride a bicycle.
    3 – For all humans, once you expect to see something, you tend to see it, and ignore things that might not fit with what you think is there. So from the man’s view: Since Eric is clearly a foreigner, the (likely) light-skinned girl in the helmet next to the foreigner, is another foreigner.

    She’d have to get the local pronunciation spot-on to even have a chance at not being considered an outsider. Any hint of different vowel sounds or word choices, and she’s an outsider.

    I’ve had a couple friends tell me they got teased for their pronunciation back home, since they’d spent too many years in the big cities.

    • sinostand says:

      My girlfriend’s face was pretty much covered by sunglasses and a bandanna, only a few patches of skin were visible (and yes, we were both riding/wearing things completely out of place for the area). So I’m guessing she was a guizi by association.

      @James: I agree completely about shame vs. guilt. I was aware going in that I wasn’t going to win anyone over to my side. But I still felt the inclination to do it. I wasn’t so bothered by the slur itself. What actually bugged me most about that whole situation was when they started laughing hysterically when I opened my mouth in Chinese. To them, I was a monkey for their amusement. Being that stupid monkey, I presumably couldn’t understand the man making his racist crack. I turned around primarily to relieve them all of that notion.

      If people want to hate me or think I’m an asshole/imperialist/lecher because of their own ignorance, whatever, I can live with that. But what I just can’t bring myself to tolerate is being disrespected like a monkey at the zoo. I probably shamed myself and perhaps made a big step backwards for foreigners in the minds of those people, but I suspect that even if they hate me (and by extension all foreigners) they’ll at least have a bit less disrespect in the future for people under the “foreigner” umbrella. That’s the trade-off I don’t regret making.

  3. Bill Collins says:

    I’m 62. I learned of sinostand via atlantic’s james fallows. I enjoy your posts, especially your journeys into the countryside. “Advocate Science Oppose Cults” is one maxim that grabbed my attention. I’ve been practicing Taoist Tai Chi in Knoxville, TN for the last 4 years. One of the society’s goals is “cultural exchange.” I’ve read p buck’s my several worlds, she did not seem to care for mandarins, and I’m slowly reading her translation of All Men Are Brothers. Her imperial women is a deep, complex, and human as any old testament biblical (cult) tale.
    In the Great Recession I reverted to mowing lawns to make ends meet. It’s manual labor for a man who has worked with his mind for the 44 prior years of his working life. I’ve gained respect for field-hands and labor. Digitalists and scientists and aggregators take field labor for granted and journey towards dependency. The american food chain is imbalanced and corroding and is too far extended. The cultural fault lines that you experience, observe, and write about in the china stew are alive and well here in east tennessee, tn, usa, too. The same fault lines slide and quake here.
    The Taoist Tai Chi Society champions The Eight Virtues but there is no conversation about them. An experience american Taoist Tai Chi practitioner here said, “It drives people away.” Hmmm. As for intolerance after 32 years in east tennessee I’m “yankee” to the many so-called nativists embed in this red state. I confront them when I can but seem only to confirm intolerance when I do. Sigh, unless the opening for cultural exchange materializes, I mostly shake the dust off my sandals.
    I enjoy your posts; thank you.

  4. James says:

    @ Sinostand

    I have been in similar situations many times, and had similar reactions.

    A friend in Shenyang in the early 90’s termed it, “the white camel effect”. Since all the tourists had to get their picture taken on/near the ubiquitous camel at tourist sites, and upon being seen, we were the next prop to get pictures taken by.

    Whether we go with “a monkey for their amusement” or a “white camel”, both are creatures completely outside the realm of society.

    Talking with them, even when bringing up a shameful topic, moves the speaker from the category of object of amusement to human.

    Even if you are then moved to the category of socially-dangerous-to-speak-to human, it’s still an improvement in status.

  5. Matt says:

    Could someone with a more astute understand of Chinese culture than I do help explain what would the correct response be to a situation like this? Being an American, my paradigm is that justice should always prevail so reading this I feel satisfied that the writer confronted the man. But, obviously Chinese feel harmony should prevail and likely feel quite differently. How could an outsider respond to a situation like this but still be respectful in the eyes of the local people? A similar scenario that we could draw from, how would a mainland Chinese respectfully react being called a racial slur by a Hong Konger while in Hong Kong?

    • FOARP says:

      I don’t think I ever heard the phrase “洋鬼子” in NJ although it was a while back. Down in Shenzhen I used to hear “洋鬼子” a bit and “鬼佬” a lot more, although I hear in HK “鬼佬” (or the trad. version thereof) is a term that has lost much of its sting.

  6. FOARP says:

    “Could someone with a more astute understand of Chinese culture than I do help explain what would the correct response be to a situation like this?”

    Wrong response: Hitting the guy or starting a fight

    Right response: pretty much anything else, what Eric did was better than most responses that come to mind.

    Personally, this kind of racism happened a lot to me in China (“Did you see those “Hallos”?”. “Check out the foreign devil” etc.) and normally whatever snappy response I might have come up with came into my head about a day late – so I usually just ignored it. Sometimes you couldn’t ignore it though because the people delivering it would be up in your face.

    As an ex-Nanjinger Eric is probably familiar with Castle Bar, a place where there used to be a lot of local v. expat brawls, at least back in 2003-5. I was jumped by a bunch of locals spouting exactly this kind of talk (“该死的老外”) absolutely unprovoked there and didn’t see the funny side of it. Whilst I’ve kind of lightened on the phrase “Laowai”, in the wrong tone it still erks me because, put simply, it still does just basically mean “White person”.

    It’s all very well to burble on about “Cultural sensitivity”, but if “cultural sensitivity” means being humiliated in front of your girlfriend by an unprovoked insult, I do not think ‘harmony’ or other faux-sensitive concepts should be uppermost in your mind.

    • sinostand says:

      I think the good news is this must be getting better at a fairly decent speed. I got very little racism in Nanjing 07-10 (although my Chinese wouldn’t have been good enough to pick up on it early on). And yes, I’m very familiar with Castle, but never had problems there. This was the first time I heard Guizi directed at me, and I certainly go out and about often enough that it’s not a result of sheltering myself. I think people are becoming less ignorant…or at least more tactful about it.

    • foarp says:

      Maybe . . . . or maybe the students from South East drink at 1912 nowadays?

  7. Potomacker says:

    I had a colleague who heard somebody refer to his 3 yo son as yang guizi. Since his son has been learning to speak Chinese in daycare, he opted to ignore the comment but it did leave a deep, negative impression that he had not expected.
    Similarly as was mentioned above, there have been instances in which my Chinese girlfriend has been taken to be other than Chinese merely by standing next to me. I don’t think it was the bandana nor the sunglasses that his her identity. In much of China the expectations of what is possible for Chinese compatriots are so narrow that they generate examples of cognitive dissonance. i.e. “Han Chinese woman do not ride mountain bikes with foreigners in this village; therefore, she cannot be Chinese.” If he had wanted to denigrate her verbally, I am fairly sure that he could have come up with far more pointed slurs.

    • foarp says:

      There’s also the whole “假洋鬼子” thing that some Chinese people get just for hanging out with whites (and let’s be clear, that’s what we’re talking about, not ‘foreigners’ because foreigners of African/Asian/Pacific/etc. extraction don’t get the same treatment).

      People can talk all they like about ‘responding respectfully’, but what you’re talking about here is racism. Responding violently is not the way, but neither is trying to explain it away as if it were merely a cultural foible. You need not be ‘respectful’ to an opinion that does not deserve respect.

      This, folks, is what people are talking about when they say it gets difficult living in China long-term, especially if you have a family and are putting them through the same thing.

      If incidents such as Eric describes happen every few weeks to you, you can try to deal with them either by ignoring them (although this can be wearing), by fighting them (although this can be dangerous), or by at least confronting them (although this is even more wearing). Every time something like this happened in China – and it would a few times a month, however I responded (and I never got violent but I did try to confront them a few times) I would spend at least the rest of that day feeling a combination of powerless frustration at not being able to do anything about it and anger that a minority of Chinese (at most 25%) felt that way about me merely because of the colour of my skin.

      It gets much worse when people are subjected to this kind of treatment merely for being associated with you. When my then-girlfriend was rudely insulted (she – a highly educated young lady – was called a whore to her face for going out with me) I simply wanted to beat the person who said it within an inch of their life, but I wasn’t there when it happened.

      I can imagine it must be much, much worse for people who see their children treated in this fashion, and thoroughly sympathise with those who say that they can justify putting themselves through this experience, but not their children.

  8. John Artman says:


    I think your motivation for the confrontation was valid. I’ve been living in Beijing for 5 years, have a Chinese wife and started a family. Many things that bothered me about Chinese people and the culture have gotten to the point that I don’t notice them anymore.

    HOWEVER, I still hate being stared at. I hate when Chinese people talk as if I’m not there and can’t understand what they’re saying about me. I hate when I’m playing with my six year old stepdaughter, people will just stop and look, making us feel like being on display, in a zoo. These are things that I’m not sure I’ll be able to accept.

    • Anon says:

      YES – bad manners

    • jby says:

      I’m a Chinese in Canada working as a foreigner. In some places here in Canada that I’ve traveled to, people stare at me, even the First Nations will stare. One even accidentally trip at a manhole while walking and staring at me. I guess they have rarely seen an Asian around there.

      imo, that was like a good opportunity to break the ice, strike a conversation or interact with them. I honestly value the stares. Being an Asian, staring or racism for that matter, doesn’t necessarily equate to negativity. Slowly, I came to learn that there’s a limit to how much “stardom” people wants, even celebrities. It never occur to me, until we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.

  9. jeff says:

    I really have to say, I think Racism is really dynamically flourishing in China, amongst and between Chinese and non Han Chinese, and focused outwardly toward foreigners as well. The American hypersensitivity, self deprecation and inner looking for culpability is something completely foreign to the minds of Chinese. There are no hand wringing equivalents to the middle class American White man here. Been here in country 7 years, lived all over, worked at all levels. Haven’t seen it yet.
    I like one of the earlier comments about “trouble maker”, when Eric justly stands against the bald faced prejudicial statements made by this ignorant man.
    I have heard black friends repeatedly called “black ghost”, I have seen advertisements and spoken to scores of schools who say unapolgetically that they will not hire blacks. I have heard good friends, intelligent and kind hearted Chinese friends, tell me that people from Tibet never bathe, that the girls are all loose in their moral habits. I have heard friends tell me in rural China that all the thefts in that part of China were conducted by people from Xinjiang. I have watched economic prejudice of migrant laborers being treated just north of slaves, and heard stories from the source.

    So, my very strong sense is that Chinese employ the classic definition of racism, as opposed to simple prejudice, which is to say, institutionalized prevention of the progress of people based on their racial background, more than any other nation I can think of. Dont you think? Isnt that simply irrefuteable? In terms of numbers.

  10. Johnny says:

    As you yourself realized, the confrontational shaming approach only humiliates them and possibly reinforces their stereotype of belligerence. What I try to do (not always successfully), is take the opportunity to start chatting with them. Since they began talking to me, they have given me permission to talk with them. I give them some pleasant small talk as if I have no idea what they said, mention where I’m from, what I’m doing in China. I channel my anger into sarcastic cheerfulness, which they don’t seem to pick up on, especially since they don’t believe I can really understand what they had said. When they laugh at my Mandarin or my shoes or whatever, I laugh with them. Now they’re already quite surprised, but feeling a bit comfortable with me. Then as I’m leaving, I mention, “oh by the way, no one enjoys being called ‘foreigner’ (or whatever it was they had said). You should probably stop calling people that. Just ask them what country they’re from.” That’s my cue to leave and let them stew on it privately, without the demands of a confrontation. I won’t stick around to hear a response. I think it increases the chance that they will get the point and be more accepting of the message while also letting me feel like I’ve “taught them a lesson”, even if only for a moment.

  11. dave says:

    I lived in Chongqing for 3 months in 2005, Si Gong Li to be exact. On 3 occasions Chinese men yelled insults at me. One man when confronted by my minority GF jumped up and ran away. Another one that I confronted shut his mouth and wouldn’t even look at me. Then when I walked away he did it again, again I confronted him and again the same act like I wasn’t there, this happened 3 times. I recently heard guizi on the street in Chengdu and I turned around to see a little brown Chinese man change his direction and walk across the street when he realised I understood him. Guizi doesn’t bother me, it’s kind of funny being called a devil.

  12. patricia says:

    Its quite hurtful and senseless base on the level of racism that exist in China. I discovered that even professional persons such as professors in universities make these racist comments. But I realized confronting persons when they do make these comments are hopeless and senseless, they just deny it, giggle like idiots and then asked you if you speak Chinese. There is just something totally wrong with this society.

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