My return to the United States has been infusing upon me some introspection into the parallels between the perceptions of foreigners in China and those of foreigners in the USA. The longer I am back home, the more analogies I am able to draw between current Chinese society and that of the US at the dawn of the 20th Century, especially in regards to the perception of outsiders. Being that I was only born in 1979, it’s difficult for me to give an accurate description of what life was like in the US a century ago. So with that in mind, I’m going to yield my blog to American author John Steinbeck.
“What’s your name?” Samuel asked pleasantly.
“Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee.”
“I’ve read quite a lot about China. You born in China?”
“No. Born here.”
Samuel was silent for quite a long time while the buggy lurched down the wheel track toward the dusty valley. “Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”
Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.
“Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it’s not my affair. I hoe you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it, Lee.”
Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”
Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”
Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”
“Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”
“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”
“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
“I hadn’t thought of it. And I’ve not been so tested as you, but what you say has a candle of truth. You know, I’m very glad to talk to you. I’ve wanted to ask so many questions.”
“Happy to oblige.”
“So many questions. For instance, you wear the queue. I’ve read that it is a badge of slavery imposed by conquest by the Manchus on the Southern Chinese.”
“That is true.”
“Then why in the name of God do you wear it here, where the Manchus can’t get at you?”
“Talkee Chinese talk. Queue Chinese fashion—you savvy?”
Samuel laughed loudly. “That does have the green touch of convenience,” he said. “I wish I had a hidey-hole like that.”
“I’m wondering whether I can explain,” said Lee. “Where there is no likeness of experience it’s very difficult. I understand you were not born in America.”
“No, in Ireland.”
“And in a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing.”
“If you cut your queue, dressed and talked like other people?”
“No. I tried it. To the so-called whites I was still a Chinese, but an untrustworthy one; and at the same time my Chinese friends steered clear of me. I had to give it up.”
Le pulled up under a tree, got out and unfastened the check rein. “Time for lunch,” he said. “I made a package. Would you like some?”
“Sure I would. Let me get down in the shade there. I forget to eat sometimes and that’s strange because I’m always hungry. I’m interested in what you say. It has a sweet sound of authority. Now it peeks into my mind that you should go back to China.”
Lee smiled satirically at him. “In a few minutes I don’t think you’ll find a loose bar I’ve missed in a lifetime of search. I did go back to China. My father was a fairly successful man. It didn’t work. They said I looked like a foreign devil; they said I spoke like a foreign devil. I made mistakes in manners, and I didn’t know delicacies that had grown up since my father left. They wouldn’t have me. You can believe it or not—I’m less foreign here than I was in China.”
“I’ll have to believe you because it’s reasonable. You’ve given me things to think about until at least February twenty-seventh. Do you mind my questions?”
“As a matter of fact, no. The trouble with pidgin is that you get to thinking in pidgin. I write a great deal to keep my English up. Hearing and reading aren’t the same as speaking and writing.”
“Don’t you ever make a mistake? I mean, break into English?”
“No, I don’t. I think it’s a matter of what is expected. You look at a man’s eyes, you see that he expects pidgin and a shuffle, so you speak pidgin and a shuffle.”
“I guess that’s right,” said Samuel. “In my own way I tell jokes because people come all the way to my place to laugh. I try to be funny for them even when the sadness is on me.”
“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”
“There’s your pidgin and your queue. They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”
Lee unwrapped a little bottle. “Would you like some of this? Chinee drink ng-ka-py.”
“What is it?”
“Chinee blandy. Stlong dlink—as a matter of fact it’s a brandy with a dosage of wormwood. Very powerful. It softens the world.”
Samuel sipped from the bottle. “Tastes a little like rotten apples,” he said.
“Yes, but nice rotten apples. Taste it back along your tongue toward the roots.”
Samuel took a big swallow and tilted his head back. “I see what you mean. That is good.”
“Here are some sandwiches, pickles, cheese, a can of buttermilk.”
“You do well.”
“Yes, I see to it.”
Samuel bit into a sandwich. “I was shuffling over half a hundred questions. What you said brings the brightest one up. You don’t mind?”
“Not at all. The only thing I do want to ask of you is not to talk this way when other people are listening. It would only confuse them and they wouldn’t believe it anyway.”
“I’ll try,” said Samuel. “If I slip, just remember that I’m a comical genius. It’s hard to split a man down the middle and always to reach for the same half.”
“I think I can guess what your next question is.”
“Why am I content to be a servant?”
“How in the world did you know?”
“It seemed to follow.”
“Do you resent the question?”
“Not from you. There are no ugly question except those clothed in condescension. I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can’t understand why more intelligent people don’t take it as a career—learn to do it well and reap its benefits. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence. It’s a hard thing for a man to change spices or lay out his own socks. He’ll keep a bad servant rather than change. But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce, reduce him to terror as a discipline, or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped, and beaten anyone I’ve worked for and come away with thanks. Finally, in my circumstances I am unprotected. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less. And I am a good servant. A bad one does no work and does no worrying, and he still is fed, clothed, and protected. I don’t know any profession where the field is so cluttered with incompetents and where excellence is so rare.”
Samuel leaned toward him, listening intently.
Lee went on, “It’s going to be a relief after that to go back to pidgin.”
“It’s a very short distance to (your) place. Why did we stop so near?” Samuel asked.
“Allee time talkee. Me Chinee number one boy. You leddy go now?”
“What? Oh, sure. But it must be a lonely life.”
“That’s the only fault with it,” said Lee. “I’ve been thinking of going to San Francisco and starting a little business.”
“Like a laundry? Or a grocery store?”
“No. Too many Chinese laundries and restaurants. I thought perhaps a bookstore. I’d like that, and the competition wouldn’t be too great. I probably won’t do it though. A servant loses his initiative.”
To me what sticks out the most from this passage is the perceptions we, as humans create about those of us who are different, especially outwardly different. We subconsciously create visions of what those people should look like, how they should act, and even how they should talk. I think the most integral component of this is physical appearance, as Lee points out. Even though he was born in America, can speak perfect English, and is well-educated, Lee is superseded by the fact that, he, from an outward perception, is a Chinese, and thus he should act like a Chinese. This draws quite the foil to Samuel, who by all accounts is less American than Lee, but because of his skin tone, is able to integrate into mainstream American society.
These preconceptions become diffused over time, mainly through exposure, as is already happening in major Chinese urban centers, due to the growing population of Westerners. But what Steinbeck posthumously reminds us of is that much of what we see in China today in regards to preconceptions of foreigners isn’t much different from what was happening during an earlier period of American history. For any Westerner who has lived in China, it’s not uncommon to recount situations where your feelings and experiences were similar to those of our old friend Lee. We are expected sing, dance, eat hamburgers, “act crazy,” or have any of the multitude of traits which are expected of Westerners. If you don’t believe me, you probably haven’t been watching enough Chinese TV.
Personally, I know I have at times felt as Lee does, that I am trapped into being an American, and no matter how long I would have stayed in China, my identity would have still been constricted into the confines of Chinese peoples’ preconceptions. Rather than fight it, sometimes you just go through the motions as Lee does, and keep your eyes open for opportunities when your personality can penetrate through the wall of stereotypes. In the meantime I can only imagine how hilarious our pidgin Chinese must sound to those on the other side of the spectrum.