Monday, November 05, 2007

Just When You Thought You Knew Your Own Hair Color

The other day my friend Nissa was asked to visit a local middle school to observe a few classes and talk to the teachers about education in America. During one of the classes the Chinese teacher was leading a class discussion about Nissa, and at one point asked her in front of the class "what do you call your hair color in America?"
"Red" Nissa replied.
To her surprise, the teacher responded "no, no, it is blond hair. Your hair is blond."
"Well yes, we have blond hair in America, but we call this hair color red."

And a small argument ensued with the teacher insisting that Nissa has blond hair. This is not the first time she has been told she does not have red hair (for reference, she is the witch in the last post). In the case of the middle school teacher, I could be wrong (and I wasn't actually there at the time) but I think this is a good example of "face" (面子 miànzi) in Chinese culture. The dislike of making mistakes or being proven wrong is a lot stronger in Chinese culture (and east Asia in general I'm led to believe) than it is in Western culture, i.e. "losing face." It's a common mistake for students to call blond hair "yellow hair" and I can envision the teacher having emphasized this beforehand, waiting for her moment in class to bring the point home, and then not wanting to back down when she was proven wrong in front of the class. But even when face isn't at stake I've seen similar situations, like a conversation I once had with a student:

Student: "Foreigners have blue eyes. Why are your eyes black?"
Me: "Um, actually my eyes are blue."
Student: "No they aren't. Your eyes are black."

It's funny how stereotypes and preconceptions can be held on to even in the face of clear evidence. Nissa told one of her classes that most foreigners (and we are always "foreigners" in China, never Westerners) have the same eye color as them and they actually gasped in unison. When you want a job as a foreign teacher in China it is required that you provide the school with a photo of yourself; those with white skin, blond hair and blue eyes will get a job considerably easier than those with darker features (not only black people but, ironically, Chinese-Americans) regardless of qualifications. Non-white foreigners face a lot of discrimination and even fear in China (a black journalist wrote about a shop assistant bursting into tears at the sight of her) but most Chinese, having never met one, are entirely unaware of this and would strongly deny it.

Chinese conceptions of foreigners are always interesting. They are also sometimes shocking or insensitive, but you can't really blame them in a country that is 95% the same race, the same hair color, the same eye color, and is considerably more conformity-driven than Western culture. Look at how much discrimination and close-mindedness exists in America despite our enormous diversity and high levels of education and prosperity. I can recall several moments from college when my educated, liberal friends made shocking comments about black people. But as an example of what I mean (also from Nissa's class, which unlike mine deals directly with cultural differences), students were asked what the differences between China and America were and a student replied "in America people discriminate and look down on minorities, but in China we always help minorities." Another said "China has 55 minorities, but America only has black people and white people." Needless to say, I'm not so sure about that.


Matthew said...

Fantastic post. I imagine you face a lot more stereotypes where you are--there are a lot of foreigners in Shenzhen. Every now and then I try to get my students to reveal their misconceptions of America so I can correct them (good thing most of my students are intelligent and reasonable). Now I just have to hope I've prepared my wife enough for her first experience visiting the US in a few months.

Dan said...

Taking your wife to America should be interesting indeed. I'm very curious now about Chinese impressions of America, and I'd like to get to know more Chinese immigrants to America when I return.

Though we are extremely well received here we do face many stereotypes; Americans all have a lot of money, America is very dangerous and there are gun fights on the street, Americans all discriminate against black people, etc.