Maybe I should have let it go. Turned my big laowai nose elsewhere. I had just gotten out of a 24-hour spa and massage centre, and I was with some friends on the Upper East Side of Shijiazhuang’s hip and happening Museum of Hebei district. Yes, I was surprised to learn that there is a Museum of Hebei too. Whatever. That isn’t the point. We were going to lunch, trying to see if there was room in the Chongqing-style hot pot restaurant down the street. You were in a rush. It was raining. Or perhaps it was sunny. It’s hard to tell because either type of weather means you’d have your umbrella and your privilege up. This gaggle of laowai was in your way.
But I was, honestly, stunned when you saw us make towards the hot pot restaurant and tapped me on the shoulder to ask, “老外，你能吃辣吗？”
I am not a bigot, so I will not assume that some people cannot read the Chinese characters I just typed. Perhaps they can. Perhaps they cannot. Let’s just not base our assumptions on the colour of their skin or their accent. However, for the benefit of those who cannot read Chinese characters, I will help here by saying that the woman asked “Foreigner, can you eat spicy food?” Not knowing that doesn’t make you a worse person. Knowing that doesn’t make you a better person. Can’t we all just get along? Jesus…
I hesitated for a second and then turned to confront you. That must have startled you. You probably weren’t even expecting that I could understand you. I have become accustomed to that.
But you didn’t stop there.
You then pointed to me and asked “Can you use chopsticks?”
It was comical, in retrospect. In a civilised country you would have been rightly arrested and had your life and career destroyed for such disrespectful bigotry. However, here nobody challenges or stops to check their privilege. Instead you just continued your hate crimes, pointing at the hot pot pictures and doubting whether I could eat the chilli peppers or not.
“I can eat lots of spicy food!” I yelled back. “Even the McSpicy burger at McDonalds!”
It felt silly. But how else to prove I belonged?
This was not my first encounter, of course, with racist food insults in China. Ask any Caucasian-Chinese, and they’ll readily summon memories of waiters bringing them knives and forks, or disturbing encounters at the grocery store when the shop assistant suggests we try the cheese. When I posted on Twitter about what happened, an avalanche of people replied back to me with their own experiences. But I couldn’t see their responses because this is China and I don’t have a VPN.
Walking home later, a pang of sadness welled up inside me. And it wasn’t the inevitable diarrhoea following three hours of all-you-can-eat spicy hot pot.
You had on a nice winter coat – even though it was 28 degrees and you were sweating profusely. But I accept your tradition of believing that winter clothes must be worn after a certain date regardless of the actual temperature. I don’t make an issue out of it. I accept. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. iPhones are designed in the West so technically you had appropriated my culture by using one, but again – I accepted. I tolerated. You could have been a fellow customer in other restaurants that I regularly dine at. Like KFC. Or Pizza Hut. You seemed, well, normal. You probably even write in extremely short sentences. Just like I do. It just feels better that way. But you also had these other feelings in you, and, the reality is, so do a lot of people in this country right now.
Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my ability to eat spicy food got to the heart of the Caucasian-Chinese experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we eat, how much mapo tofu we can handle, how much diarrhoea we get, our stomachs don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not Chinese. It’s one of the reasons that everybody thinks I only eat hamburgers and hot dogs for breakfast. That and the fact that I’m morbidly obese and have type-two diabetes. “Why are you so fat?” Chinese people always ask me. Now we can add fat-shaming to your list of sins.
I fled the United Kingdom for China because I was tired of bland food. I struggled to overcome a diet of fish and chips so that I could eat the types of spicy food that I truly identified with. I’m trans-spiced. I came to this land for the hot pot. For the Kung Pao Chicken. For the McSpicy. I even came here for the diarrhoea. Model minority, indeed.
Yet somehow I still often feel like an outsider.
And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away. Not the feeling of diarrhoea (that never goes away), but the feeling of otherness. My stomach is not your exotic curio. Don’t “other” my tastebuds. Work with me for the day when we can all have a hot pot… together.
But, afterward, my 7-year-old daughter, who witnessed the whole thing, kept asking my wife, “Why did she ask, ‘Can you eat spicy food?’ We’re not even eating spicy food anyway.”
No, we’re not, my wife said, and she tried to explain that the reason we decided not to go to the hot pot restaurant after all and instead go to McDonalds was because she found a voucher in her purse for 50% off all Big Macs that expires next week.
Your father spends most of his money on alcohol, she told my daughter. We choose where we eat based on price, not spiciness. But sometimes people don’t understand that.
I hope you do now.
(If you’re lucky enough to not know what the hell I am talking about you can head to the New York Times and read this drivel)
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.