The Chinese on a personal level: White man in China

4 min read

I went to China in 2011 by way of Hong Kong. I met up with a friend of mine I had met in Vietnam who was living in Hong Kong; he offered to show me around.

Hong Kong, of course, is China: “one government, two systems”–although the Hong Kong citizens have different passports. I crossed from there into the mainland by a ferry to Guangzhou.

My first impression at the border of mainland China was the seriousness of the border authorities. I was laughing at jokes as I was crossing in and when a lot of cultures see laughing foreigners, they think you are laughing at them!

This is a common problem I have overseas. Besides the strange stares I got at the border, mainland China looked surprisingly modern.

“Where was old China?” I thought.

“Oh, that’s right–wedged between the new China.” –A temple here, an old stone wall wedged between a high-rise and the new McDonald’s.

I travelled throughout China on trains with beds stacked three people high–all open, no doors. When it was time to sleep, the lights were shut off, whether you were ready for bed or not.

On one train, while the lights were off, a man jumped up and reached over the foreigner’s cot who was above me.

I stared at the man. He stared back. I kept staring him down. He stared back and went away.

The next day, we found out that the foreigner I was travelling with at the time had his bag slashed open; the man was probably looking for an I-pad or something of value.

It was probably best that I didn’t confront the man, he could have stabbed me–God knows what the authorities would have done with him if they found him trying to steal from a foreigner.

That was really the only problem I had in China. I was mostly treated like a celebrity in China, as I am white. I was different. I was exciting to them. Parents would point me out to their children and I would respond, “Nee hao!”– The children would run away.

I would type something on a public computer and people would come up next to me. I would look up and notice they were taking a picture with me! Simply by being there, I was making an impression. I was a minority there.

I made it all the way to Chongqing, China–the biggest city you have never heard of. In that city of millions of people, there is an Irish bar. In this Irish bar, the owner was from the same county in America as me! What are the odds?

I kicked back in the bar with the foreigners and English teachers. Some of the local Chinese would come up and take a picture with us. Some consider this gesture strange; I am actually flattered that I would be asked to be in a picture. In America, I’m just another white man. In China, I am the white man.

When a lot of people think of China, they think of communism, they think of red flags, they may even think of Tiananmen Square, or some human rights violations. They think of those serious border guards and soldiers.

I think that is just the surface of China. In China, I see people who are just trying to get by. I see people that want to emulate the modern western world, while at the same time remaining uniquely Chinese.

In some ways (maybe trivial), believe it or not, I actually felt like I had more freedom in China. I could walk around the centre of Chongqing with a bottle of beer and play the foreign English teacher game, point out the white person in the square. If I did this with a glass bottle in downtown Chicago, I’d probably be at least fined and maybe charged for having an open container.

I even managed to bend the rules a little bit and get the above photo taken…

This kind of travel, aggressively going where you normally “shouldn’t be”, is the kind of travel that I promote at I think this kind of personal travel not only is a challenge for individuals, but also challenges the local culture.

You are forced to think differently by being surrounded by another culture and, consequently, they are forced to think differently by your presence. I have proposed a project, Project Passport: Sponsor a Traveler, as a way to promote of this kind of travel. Until people travel into China, I don’t think they can understand a lot of misconceptions about it.

Tony Simon

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