Exotification in China

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I have always wanted to come to China, whether listening to the stories my grandfather told about his childhood here, or wondering about all the ones he didn’t share, I felt like I owed it to my blood to at least try and understand some of Chinese culture.  What did my Grandpa feel on his way to the Philippines and then the States, what was he leaving behind?

Despite my long and ongoing attempt to learn Chinese, and my curiosity, coming to China was, and still is a hard decision.  I might technically be a quarter Chinese, but since my Grandpa came to the States by himself, he could not hold on to much of what made him Chinese.  Further, I am, for all intents and purposes white.  I don’t look Chinese, so I can’t speak to the Chinese American experience, much less the Chinese experience.  Ultimately, although I wanted to learn more about my grandfather and myself, I didn’t want to take something from China that didn’t belong to me, as so many white men before me have.

With my position in mind, I have been very excited to come to China ad learn what I can whilst being as respectful as possible.  Where again, I’ve been incredibly lucky.  Truth be told, nothing has been more special than spending time with my great uncle and distant cousins.  I have never felt so welcomed and loved by people I’d barely met before and struggled to communicate with.  I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a homestay with a truly lovely family.  My host mother, father, and little brother have taken great care of me, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t look forward to playing with my little brother whenever possible!

Being so welcomed here has been really lovely, but of course, no place is all one thing and China is rich with many things, complexity included.  For one thing, being a foreigner in China has kept me explicitly aware of my privileges on a domestic and global level.  As someone who clearly doesn’t look Chinese, and with white skin at that, I am privy to whole host of privileges ranging from a held open door to extra wiggle room at security checkpoints.

One of the most important take-aways though is the feeling of being exotified.  Even in Shanghai, foreigners draw the occasional stare, or children’s whispers.  So far, it has all been in good humor, and comes from a place of admiration rather than animosity.  However, it gives me a lot of perspective on exotification in general.  In the States I may not be exotified, but people who share my Chinese heritage certainly are, not to mention every other ethnic group under the sun that isn’t white, even indigenous folk who have more right to the country than anyone else.  If exotification based in admiration prevents me from feeling l really belong in a foreign country, exotification based in animosity in your own country is all the more terrible, and this trip has served as an important reminder of that fact.

Living in China has served as a wonderful opportunity to learn about the country, my family, and myself, while also improving my understanding of the world.  I have been lucky enough to meet my relatives while asking myself important questions about the ethics of travel and the implications of thereby furthering the globalization’s nasty reach.

Tommaso Wagner is an Environmental Policy Major at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Public Health Policy and Practice program in Shanghai, China during Spring 2018.

Article by Tommaso Wagner