4 Reasons Why Dr. Bell’s Chinese Card is Officially #Cancelled
In response to this article in the Wall Street Journal.
Brief summary: Dr. Bell, a white man of Canadian origin who has been living in China for over 20 years, believes that he should be included in the general consensus of who is Chinese because of how well he has assimilated into Chinese culture (whatever he thinks that is), citing China’s multiethnicity, some hypothetical ABC chick for some reason, and his smashing conference attire. The key argument, says Dr. Bell, is that Chinese identity should be based on a test of cultural compatibility—and whoever passes the test should be awarded the Chinese card, based on merit.
I’m going to level with you: I absolutely resent that this piece exists, and it isn’t just because I resent when white Western folks try to lay claim to aspects of Asian identity (more on that later). It’s also because that, in an attempt to sound authoritative on Chinese culture to a white audience, Dr. Bell manages to say some pretty offensive, inaccurate, and minimizing things about China and Chinese people.
Never mind the fact that Dr. Bell’s arguments happen to depend on a distinctly Americentric interpretation of identity, or that comparing the way identity is treated in a settler-colonial state is by no means an appropriate way to measure how identity is thought about elsewhere. I can’t even begin to explain the incompatibility of that analogy (partly because I can’t even begin to explain, I literally can’t). But there’s plenty else to find objectionable in Dr. Bell’s application for his Chinese card. For example…
1. Misrepresenting and appropriating issues regarding Mandarin and Chinese multiethnicity for his own benefit
Dr. Bell’s first Problematique™ argument arises out of his assertion that language is not the greatest barrier to Chinese citizenship, because millions of Chinese citizens don’t speak Mandarin—and yet “nobody questions their Chineseness”. The implication here, seemingly, is that because he can give academic talks in Mandarin and these millions cannot, he is somehow more deserving of Chineseness than they are.
Uhm. Nobody questions their Chineseness because not speaking Mandarin doesn’t mean you don’t speak Chinese, my dude. For the uninitiated: We may use Mandarin and Chinese interchangeably in White America, but Mandarin is just another of many dialects in the Chinese language and oh my God how could you live in China for 20 years and not know that or, knowing that, fail to convey nuance rather than give us that incredibly unnuanced conjecture. Cantonese! Shanghai dialect! Hunanese! All of these dialects are spoken by Chinese people, and none of them detract from the fact that they are all Chinese.
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the ongoing issue in China of Han superiority and the dominance of Mandarin, which threatens to eclipse and even drive marginalized dialects out of existence—nor the way in which the imposed uniformity of Chinese language to the pro-Mandarin hegemony has been problematic in the past and present, from the persecution of Uighur Muslims to the de facto ethnic cleansing of Tibet. Dr. Bell thinks he is making an enlightened argument. I think he is spouting incredibly self-serving conjecture while glossing over the fact that his words reinforce oppressive, hegemonic patterns in Chinese affairs. Moreover, I think it rather adds to the offense that he actually explicitly talks about these things, but only to bolster his own Chinese credentials. Welp.
2. Assuming that Westernization in China means that Chinese people don’t love their culture as much as he does
I’m told over and over that my commitment to Chinese culture is more “Chinese” than that of many Chinese people. At conferences in China, I often find myself the only person wearing Chinese-style clothing.
Hey, so I went to a conference in America and I was sorely disappointed to see that I was the only one in attendance wearing a tricorn hat! SMH these people don’t appreciate their culture, clearly I’m working harder to be American than they are. Shifu Trump, may I have my green card now?
For the record, we could talk until we’re blue in the face about the People’s Republic and their relationship with traditional Chinese aesthetic and values. In its quest to modernize, Chinese people have found themselves casting off aspects of traditional culture in favor of more Western aesthetic and culture but honestly, for a white person to latch onto this trend to fashion a racial conjecture that allows him to be Chinese is warped as hell.
Believe it or not, the push towards China’s—and Chinese people’s—Westernization is due fundamentally to Western pressure. It manifests in many forms, from the skin whitening products that line Chinese beauty shop shelves to the fact that nearly nobody in China has a traditional Chinese wedding anymore, instead opting for the Western white gown and tuxedo. But is the Chinese émigré any less Chinese because they take on a Western name to avoid the constant awkwardness and embarrassment of Western people failing (and often, not even trying) to pronounce their Chinese name? Chinese Westernization is not a scorning of tradition, it is a survival tactic. And the last thing you should be doing as a white person who, still, directly benefits from the colonization of non-white nations, is to chastise Chinese people for not trying as hard as you.
Whether or not you think this is a tragedy or “Chinese people abandoning their roots” does not change the fact that these changes are, fundamentally, in service of you and people like you. So long as Westernization is portrayed as synonymous to strength and modernity, the Chinese will gravitate towards Western aesthetic and traditions. And it is quite perverted for a person of Western origin to even implicitly chastise non-Western people for adhering to Western standards of business attire, when it was Western people who imposed those standards to begin with. Get it?
3. Self-serving omissions of key facts in Chinese history
When China is weak, foreigners are often viewed with suspicion and even hatred. The most famous modern case is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901, which sought to violently expel the Western and Christian presence in China.
Alright guys, pack it up, because historical context is out of style now! Let’s fixate on the fact that the Boxer Rebellion involved mean ol’ Chinese folk trying to kick out the nice whites and conveniently omit every other piece of this narrative for some reason!
I…okay. Y’all, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the British and allied European forces literally exported opium to China en masse with the intent of turning an entire region of Chinese people into fucking heroin addicts so that they could negotiate more favorable foreign policy and trading terms with a state full of heroin addicts that they created. In other words, the British turned all of China into the national equivalent of crack whores for their own benefit. And then, when Chinese officials registered some concern about the alarming rate at which addiction was climbing in their country, the European allied forces invaded China and, among other things, burnt down a shit ton of significant and prized Chinese landmarks, including large portions of the emperor’s summer palace in Peking (present-day Beijing) in what are now known as the Opium Wars. So maybe it’s not hard to imagine that, having to pick up the pieces from that mess, having had their shit all fucked up by a group of folks who wanted to treat them like literal crack whores, Chinese people were a little more than understandably upset at the Western and Christian presence in China.
I mean, think about it. Say you make some bomb-ass tea, and some guy down the street hears about it and comes over wanting to buy some but he’s lowballing the shit out of you so you don’t sell. So instead of raising his prices or something like that, he sells you crack, gets you addicted, and then leverages your addiction so that you’ll give him tea in exchange for more crack. And then when you object to this arrangement, he burns your house down.
Also, just as a side note, the Boxer Rebellion was brutally quashed by the European powers whom afterwards installed a permanent foreign military presence in China and executed every government official who had been involved. So :/
4. Erasure of the experience of Chinese diaspora and the reality of being a “perpetual foreigner”
But to me the greatest issue with Dr. Bell’s piece is that he doesn’t seem to understand what it means to be a perpetual foreigner, because he isn’t one. Yes, I am sure that sounds insensitive, but listen—there is a very easy remedy for Dr. Bell’s supposed “perpetual” foreigner status: Go back to Canada.
Certainly, returning to a country after being gone for two decades will require some readjustment. But at the end of the day, and no matter how long he’s been gone or where he’s been, Dr. Bell’s whiteness ensures that he will always be perceived as Canadian first. Whatever feelings he may personally harbor about being in China for twenty years will not change the fact that Canadians will see him on the street and think “Canadian”, not other.
This is not an option, by and large, that is available for members of the Chinese diaspora. Let’s talk, for instance, about the hypothetical Chinese-American girl Dr. Bell concocts for the purposes of his piece—a third-generation immigrant who doesn’t speak any Chinese and doesn’t identify as such. Never mind that her cultural disconnect from China will never truly make her American, that she’ll always be the subject of orientalism no matter how perfect her English is. Can she go back? After all, she is Asian; racially, she is Chinese, even if she hypothetically rejects the label (which goes into a whole different can of white supremacist worms that we can discuss later). But could she go back to China and seamlessly blend back in with the population again? Could she, this hypothetical ABC, return to place where she would not be seen as “other?” The answer, here, is no. The tricky part about a country whose view of the “other” is so all-encompassing is that even the Chinese diaspora qualifies. This ABC girl probably isn’t up to date on the fashions, either, so her makeup and clothes would give her away. And even if she was, she would out herself simply by opening her mouth. And, since many ABC’s cultural upbringing is often highly region-specific, she would probably stick out if she was dropped in the wrong part of China, as well.
(PS: Why doesn’t this ABC girl speak Chinese? I know she’s purely hypothetical and exists only to serve your own purposes, but it’s probably because someone in her family decided not to teach their children Chinese because they knew that speaking English with an accent would hinder their attempts to integrate into American society.)
Even my father, the man who was born and raised in China, could not go back either. In the forty years since he left, China has left him behind. His aesthetic is undeniably the American dad aesthetic and, as he often says to me, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”—so he probably wouldn’t be able to give up his socks-with-Tevas and “Manhattan Beach 10k Finisher” #looks even if he wanted to, even though they betray him immediately as foreign. My dad isn’t up to date on the latest in Chinese academia or savvy of the latest trends in Chinese technology. Even his Beijing accent sounds out of place from years of desaturation in California. It would take years for him to even begin to re-assimilate and again, if he went anywhere but Beijing, he wouldn’t even have a chance.
I suppose there are two lines of disconnect between Dr. Bell and I—you lack the racial aspect of Chinese identity, while I lack the cultural. But the two are not interchangeable. When Chinese people emigrate from the motherland, they also burn a bridge. They can never really come back in the same way. Dr. Bell, on the other hand, will always have his unequivocal Canadian identity to come home to.
This is what it means to be a “perpetual foreigner”—not just that you are othered in your adopted country, but that you’re othered in the one you came from as well. You don’t want to be here. It’s a painful and confusing place to be. For many Chinese diaspora, Chinese identity is a tenuous thread that we cling to which reminds us that we are more complex than the boxes that whiteness insists we occupy. It is how we connect to our ancestors and family. It is how we survive erasure in a white-dominated society. And it’s not the same thing as a white expatriate wishing to enjoy the full scope of his white privilege in a borrowed country.
I will end with this excellent quote:
Although Dr. Bell may think that he is breaking new ground here, he is, in reality, perpetuating a centuries old trend: using his supposed “experience” and Western insight to speak authoritatively about Asian issues, defining the parameters by which Asian issues can be discussed, and, ultimately, manipulating perspectives on Asia for consumption by a Western audience. And this Oriental, quite frankly, is sick of it. We can speak for ourselves, thank you very much—and this precise nonsense is the reason why we need to, more than ever, because otherwise white men like Dr. Bell will never stop speaking over us.