The face of China
I work on the fourth floor of an office building. The floor has only two offices, a kitchenette and two toilets. The other office is occupied by an esoteric Chinese healing business, part religion, part massage and part acupuncture. It’s a little vague. I make jokes that it is a little dodgy, but that’s only a joke. It’s probably not dodgy at all, just culturally exotic. One day in May as I was leaving the office and getting into the elevator with the Japanese receptionist we noticed some minor damage to the elevator door frame: an abrasion and slight dent.
She said, “I wonder who did that?” I didn’t think it really mattered since it was such a minor thing. But some people have an eye for this sort of thing.
I said, “Maybe the Chinese did it.” Of course, I meant the Chinese operating the business in the adjacent office, not the entire Chinese people. They only recently moved into the space, so for a few weeks there was a lot of traffic coming and going, a lot of boxes, packages, nick-knacks and noise. I don’t know their names. We don’t interact. So I just call them “the Chinese,” or “the Chinese business.” Is there harm in that? Maybe it shows deficient human interaction with neighbors, but is it hate speech to speculate aloud like that? I certainly don’t hate them. My usual disposition to my neighbors is benign indifference, which I think is morally appropriate. What would be morally inappropriate is to take too much interest in our neighbors. That is the sin of failing to mind one’s own business.
But I was upset when, after my speculation, the receptionist quipped, “That’s racist!” Then the elevator reached the ground floor and we separated: she to the local subway station; me to my apartment just a 15-minute walk away through the pleasantly cool, dark spring time evening.
China is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual society.
I later pointed out to her that the Chinese people are not a race. “Chinese” is an adjective meaning “of China,” "from China," or “belonging to China.” It is a nationality and unsurprisingly it is a little vague. The country of China is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual society. So is Japan for that matter. I thought that her idea that my comment was racist was extremely racist itself. Or if not that, then unduly ignorant.
It’s true that 80% of modern Chinese fall within the Han ethnic group, but overall Chinese citizens’ racial characteristics range from Mongol to Indian and almost European. It is extremely heterogeneous. But distinctions like this don’t register very far or deeply with people because the outside world’s monolithic conception of China is so fixed and inert - like “Christian” America, “Jewish” Israel, or “Islamic” Iran all of which are similarly inaccurate on close scrutiny. The single party communist façade of China’s government doesn’t much help foreigners’ impressions either, I guess.