What to talk about when white people talk about Chinese culture

“exotic sights and sounds” at the Wangfujing Night Market

Last week, I saw a New York Times article shared on my Facebook feed by several high school friends about a common sight in Beijing where we all lived at the time: Chinese men rolling up their shirts just enough to reveal their stomachs as a summertime cooling tactic. At first, I was amused at the term “Beijing bikini” mentioned in the Facebook post, but when I read the article itself, I grew frustrated. The lede was condescending in its description of Chinese city streets and its citizens, noting the “exotic sights and sounds” like “sidewalk barbecues grilling tough-to-identify animal parts” and the “unmistakable growl of a clearing throat — that ends with an inevitable splat.” (Side note: can we just refrain from using the word “exotic” from now on? Are things really “exotic” things if the one observing is a foreigner?) The author presents men who expose their stomachs to cool down as “exotic” because they aren’t fit or muscled. By saying that these men wear “Beijing bikinis” “without the teeniest hint of shame (nor the teeniest hint of a six-pack),” the article does indeed shame them and their “generous bellies.”

As someone who is Chinese, grew up in Beijing, and lived there for eight years, these sentences conjured up an intense feeling of “otherness.” In the author’s eyes, we grill mystery meat on the side of the road, hock loogies, and display parts of our bodies in a way that literally “bewilders foreigners.” In my state of frustration, I naturally took to Twitter:

I don’t mind people writing or sharing their experiences in a new city, country, or culture. Travel writing and study abroad blogs are built on one’s experience out of their home country and comfort zone. Media has certainly evolved to be more blog-like and more personal — this article comes from an entire New York Times column called What in the World which “offers you glimpses of what our journalists are observing around the globe.” I can see the value of having journalists abroad document their experiences so that readers can learn more about other countries and customs.

But my problem is when the subjects and cultural customs are treated as eccentric simply for being different, framed in a condescending manner, or compared to the white Western norm in ways that show that in their otherness, there is also something inherently less. As the author notes in the article, these bared midriffs are not only a domestic phenomenon, but are also “increasingly visible abroad, proudly displayed by Chinese tourists outside New York City art museums, Buckingham Palace in London and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.” The juxtaposition of these traditionally Western tourist destinations with these Chinese tourists only demonstrates their “otherness” and furthers Western cultural superiority over other countries.

What is the value here beyond showcasing our “otherness,” especially considering it’s not a new thing in our country let alone in this country? (It was “discovered” six years ago by a writer at The LA Times — thank you for spotting that @Inner_Kimchi — albeit in a slightly more objective article.) I understand and appreciate efforts to write more broadly about the world, but there needs to be more attention paid to the balance between education and appropriation of whatever is “foreign” to appease a predominantly white or Western readership.

Oh yeah, then I saw this same story mentioned in Tuesday’s edition of theSkimm as a “Thing To Know.” Because apparently now “this is a thing, and now it has a name,” but only because it’s been coined and distributed by white people.

There is a thin line between observation and othering, and when you are a writer with a powerful platform and giant audiences, your perspective renders what readers see in other countries and their people. On the one hand, this kind of cross-cultural observation is great, but not when age-old practices or customs are treated as new or noteworthy discoveries because they are observed by a white person for the first time. It is possible to observe without making those observations feel like spectacle. Instead, perspectives, such as this “Beijing bikini” one, simply perpetuate the same white, Western outlook that these articles aim to supplement without adding any genuine or novel cultural value.

Who decides whether these stories should be written at all? Articles that cite things from other cultures or countries— customs, hairstyles, food, etc. — as discoveries or spectacles reflect the unbearable whiteness of newsrooms. In a 2015 survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) regarding minority newsroom representation, the New York Times “clocked in at 19 percent,” only slightly above the minority representation in the daily newspaper workforce of 13 percent. The figures on newsroom employees who were African American, Asian American, or Hispanic showed underrepresentation for each minority group when compared to the percentages of that group in the US population. As an article in The Guardian from this past April noted, “racism in the media is often linked to a lack of diversity within the industry.” When the writers of a publication don’t reflect the broader population, neither does the content they produce.

Not everything in other countries has to be compared subjectively to what America views as normal and then repurposed for the sake of cultural entertainment or education. Exposing readers to dimensions of other cultures is great, but such articles can easily reinforce a white or Western cultural authority over others while alienating (or in my case, infuriating) a publication’s nonwhite readers.

Just today, Epicurious posted a tweet: “So…have you heard about mumbo sauce?” People quickly replied with memes and gifs, calling out the “Columbusing.” Marissa Evans was “curious to know how many people of color are on staff” and then critiqued Epicurious in a great series of tweets centered on food culture writing, having a diverse staff, and telling untold stories of writers of color.

There is a need for more diverse and inclusive newsrooms in order to tell better stories, serve wider audiences, and cover different cultures in a respectful way. They will be able to more accurately contextualize their writing, challenge the societal norms that permeate everything from our institutions to our language, and not just repurpose or appropriate the same things that have existed in non-American or nonwhite communities for years. More importantly, diversity in the newsroom means that writers can find the real, new stories focusing on meaningful cross-cultural connections. Maybe those will someday become the norm and replace the articles about grown men exposing their bellies years after they decided to roll up their shirts.