Shanghai: A Field Experience of Being the Privileged and Objectified Foreigner

Sumerian Coffee - Shanghai

Dear All,

One of the strange and wonderful things about being part of a fledgling ‘global-leaders’ program is that sometimes you have travel opportunities thrust upon you. Really. There is often no option but to travel where the Academy thinks it best for you to be. I feel spoiled, privileged and honestly slightly overwhelmed with the responsibility of making the most of these opportunities. One does get a large smack of impostor-syndrome when travelling for research with some truly brilliant minds wrapped up in your travel companions.

What struck me about this trip was 1) the sheer amount of foreigner-privilege afforded us in China, and 2) the weird combination of this with the objectification of our existence by a lot of Chinese nationals. Specifically men. During our two day stay in the City of Lights we were approached three times for photographs; once politely,  once intrusively, once aggressively. Each time we declined, in one case very forcefully. The asker was shocked – amazed that these foreign females would refuse their attentions in their country. I can see their tacit point: ‘You’re in my country, we give you such leigh-way, let me have a photo with you.’ Had we been approached by older hetero couples, young mothers with children, or even a group of teenagers perhaps the outcomes would have been different.

But these were men. All men. It always is.

In our case these men were aged between 20-60, and each time they were accompanied by one or two other men. They did not so much ‘ask’ as hold their phones in our faces waiting for us to pose and smile. They did not respond appropriately to: ‘No, no thank you.’ Or even: ‘I said, no, thank you.’ Only: ‘No. I said no. Go away. Now.’ Additionally, I say they approached ‘our group’, rather, they approached the ethnically-white members of our group.

Of course, this behaviour is not limited to Shanghai. In Beijing, I’ve been stared at, had photos taken of me dozens of times in a single metro ride, told I’m beautiful/sexy/ugly/horrid, ogled by small children, forced to talk to toddlers so their parents can show off their English. In Nanjing I’ve been forcefully grabbed at by small packs of tweenagers and had to (gently but firmly) push them off. In Kunming I had my hair stroked by men at tourist sites. In Guangzhou I was poked in the legs by older women checking to see if I really am that tall.

But thank goodness I’m tall.

My smaller female friends often find themselves in much more volatile social interactions. They’ve been forced to give their WeChat contacts to have men leave them alone. They have been touched and groped in clubs for appearing more ‘sexy’ than the Chinese women present and therefore ‘asking for it’. Their legs are felt by taxi drivers on the way home. They are asked intrusive questions from complete strangers on the street and forced to wait for crowds of people to pass to run away into. Fortunately for me, most Chinese men either a) don’t find my attractive because of my larger frame and therefore mentally ‘un-gender’ me, and/or b) are intimidated by a woman who is on average 2-12 inches taller than them loudly saying ‘No’.

And I’m white.

My friends with higher melanin levels have a much worse time of it. Their stories are not mine to tell, but suffice to say though foreigner-privilege usually means they are unlikely to come to physical harm in a public place, they are subjected to levels of objectification and verbal discourse that are positively archaic in their logic.

Shanghai this time, overall, was a wonderful trip with some exceptional travel companions. Yet it did bring home again the immense cultural shift yet to wash over this largely (sometimes unnervingly) mono-ethnic, Confucian-patriarchal society. The status afforded foreigners (which obviously varies given your perceived gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity) is certainly two-sided. Along with varying levels of pseudo-diplomatic privilege comes an objectification and even nullification of your personhood. I look different enough not be be seen immediately as entirely human – something as a white person I am not qualified to speak to beyond my experiences in China. However, it is a factor very much present in my daily interactions with many – but certainly not all – Chinese nationals.

Don’t worry friends and fam, I’m very much safe and sound, but I haven’t finished talking about this yet – not by a long shot. Next time: Guangzhou.



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