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.