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Disadvantages to Privilege


Now that I am a mother of a half American half Chinese baby I often wonder how the world will view her.  Will her diverse background be a benefit or obstacle for her?  As a white female living as a foreigner in China, I imagine Chinese will treat her much like they have treated me. As a foreigner my pale skin and light hair are seen as beautiful, along with my high status as an American I often receive special treatment. I have been invited to banquets and fancy business parties, regardless of my position in the company. I have been referred to as the “foreign friend” at weddings and given a seat of honor or asked to speak or sing, although I may not even know the bride or groom. Strangers continually ask to take their picture with me or their children.

My English level is seen as superior based not on my education or background but rather from my skin color. As the foreign teacher in public schools, senior local teacher will ask me for advice in how to teach or correct a grammar point. Asif my foreignness gives me authority over their degrees and years of experience. I have also received numerous job offers from strangers to teach their children or coworkers. I advise students and edit their college essays to Ivy League schools I could never dream of attending.  Once I was hired to attend a panel where I would not speak but sit with the company to give the appearance of a diverse staff.

My Chinese level as a foreigner, no matter how low, is also seen as impressive. “Ni Hao” or “Xie xie” will often earn the standard reply of, “Wow! Your Chinese is so good!”  This has been an enormous benefit to me when I first arrived in China and I greatly appreciated that I was not expected to have mastered their language. Many people would communicate with me through charade-style gestures and even take over simple tasks for me. Such as going through the voice prompts on a helpline, serving my plate, and exempting me from security checks.

As my Chinese level improved, what was once a benefit has become an obstacle. My words or opinions are often not heard as the focus is on my Chinese level.  The conversation goes off into a tangent of, “Where did you learn Chinese? How can you possible understand our superior language as a foreigner?” This genuine surprise and interest negates any point I was trying to make, despite my language skills. This tangent occurs at stores for daily tasks as well as among friends and work. I am often ignored because it seems my appearance drowns out my words.

I can make a parallel to my experience as a woman. There was a time I rejected the fight for equality stating that I liked the privilege I found from being a woman. I appreciated men holding doors for me, offering to carry heavy items, or take care of manly jobs around the house. But just as I realized my foreign privilege in China actually came with disadvantages, being a woman in America also has disadvantages.

As a student I was often in competition with other girls in sports and in music. My competition in academics seemed equal between the sexes but when I graduated and entered the workforce it became clear that the sexes were not equal. Being told you are beautiful seems like a complement, but in a job interview or in the middle of a debate it becomes an obstacle. My face seems to drown out my words. I am seen as a woman or girl before I am seen as a colleague or peer. The kindness I once saw in a gentlemen taking care of me or doing the heavy lifting, now makes me seem weak and belittled. As a new mom I realize a young woman in the workforce is seen as a liability rather than an asset. The laws that are in place to protect women, such as maternity leave, actually work against us.

I was appalled at the audacity of my previous company in response to hearing I was pregnant that they, “Would not renew my contract if I was pregnant because it cost the company a lot of money.” I told myself that this would never happen in America, but I honestly don’t know that that is true. An American company would never say that, but I have heard many stories of companies finding loopholes or excuses to avoid paying benefits. Even with the law on my side the company knew that my threat to sue was an empty threat. The time and resources needed to go through the justice system would be too taxing on a new mother.  I stifled my emotions knowing any display of emotion would negate any of my previous statements; being written off as a hormonal woman not meaning what I say.  I worked through morning sickness, ignored my exhausted body trying to prove that I could perform at the same level as before the pregnancy. All the while I was looked at under the microscope, everyone waiting for me to fail. I am seen as uncaring if I return back to work after having my baby yet seen as unambitious if I want to stay home. Society pounds women with pressure and judgement no matter what we decide.

The privilege of being a foreigner in china with admirable features somehow gives others the perceived right to stare or comment on my looks. My being in their country makes me some sort of exhibit my western manners coax me to oblige. Strangers will comment that I am so fat, my nose is so pointy, my arms are so hairy. Stare me down relentlessly, boldly pointing and encouraging others to confirm their findings. I often wish I didn’t know the language well enough to understand my boss or coworkers talking about me and commenting on my body while their higher position keeps me silent.  Again, I blame the culture telling myself this rudeness would never occur in more socially conscious, politically correct country like America.

Which is worse; for someone to blatantly display their thoughts or to mask that same feeling with back handed complements so common in my culture? I have also smiled politely at social gatherings when an elder would give me unsolicited “complements”.  For example the ever so helpful, “you’d be so pretty if you’d only…” It is un-lady-like to push someone’s hand away or leave an uncomfortable conversation without an excuse.   My manners and my privilege trap me in these unwinnable situations.

I realize these are generalizations and just one person’s experience. So what about you? Can you relate to these situations? Leave me your stories in the comments below.

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