China Power

‘Monkey Shows’: Being a Foreigner in China

Foreigners in China — particularly whites — are given economic value simply because of the color of their skin.

In 2010, Mitch Moxley wrote a story for The Atlantic entitled “Rent a White Guy,” relating the story of his trip to Dongying where he pretended to be the representative of a non-existent California-based company that was allegedly building a factory in the city. His Canadian friend Ernie, hired to play the role of director, delivered a speech before a large crowd in which he “boasted about the company’s long list of international clients.” After the speech, “confetti blasted over the stage, fireworks popped […] and Ernie posed for a photo with the mayor.” The article has nothing to say about the extent of the scam. Were Mitch Moxley and his friend Ernie giving a boost to a local company or were the attendees being asked to invest in a company that didn’t exist?

A 2010 CNN report cited one ad posted on The Beijinger by a company called “Rent A Foreigner.” The story describes one foreigner who had police knock on his door one day, “after a financial company he worked at for a couple of months in Xi’an […] allegedly swindled millions of yuan out of clients.”

It’s commonplace in China to see expats paid exorbitant fees as dancers, singers, musicians, or models, often regardless of talent. I have seen unattractive models, dancers who couldn’t dance, and singers who couldn’t sing. One of my friends was once paid handsomely to play bass at a live concert. The thing was, he didn’t know how to play bass — so they left his instrument unplugged and he plucked at the strings as if he had some clue as to what he was doing. Several of the musicians were also pantomiming to a prerecorded track, but the track had no bass, so my friend was pretending to play a part that didn’t exist. No one in the crowd seemed to notice though, and he was paid more than twice what the Chinese band members, who were actually rather talented musicians, earned.

Whenever I see such spectacles, I can’t help but think of the scene from The Cape Town Affair when a little girl shouts at a monkey, “Dance, monkey, dance!” Some of my friends even refer to such gigs as “monkey shows.” In a short New York Times documentary entitled “Rent-a-Foreigner in China,” released last month, a Chinese agent explains that foreigners lend an international feel to businesses. “We have high-, middle- and low-grade ones,” she says. “Now it is true that the price of white people is expensive,” but if clients can’t afford one, she recommends using black people since they “are quite cheap.”  Indians, meanwhile, are “about the same as blacks.” Evidently black people and Indians are considered “low-grade” foreigners.

This practice extends far beyond the “monkey show” world. Generally, white English teachers make considerably more than their bilingual Chinese counterparts and often more than Chinese-Americans too. It doesn’t matter that Chinese-Americans are native English speakers. If parents see an Asian person teaching their children, they often assume the person doesn’t speak English well (even if they themselves speak it too poorly to be able to judge). I once met a Russian who taught at a local English school in Chengdu. He could barely string a dozen words together in English. Nevertheless, he was paid more than four times the average Chinese salary. Naturally, he was white.

Many foreigners simply have far better opportunities in China than they would back home. To be sure, there are many serious and hard-working expats in China. But there are also the others. Semi-functional drunks who “teach” English while earning more than Chinese doctors.

The problem isn’t solely with these foreigners either. The managers and agents hiring these incompetent folk, and paying them their exorbitant and unwarranted salaries, are Chinese. To an extent, one might argue that their salaries compensate for being so far from home or that, matters of racial privilege aside, these individuals have an economic value and are paid accordingly. That is, foreigners make places more attractive to certain Chinese, as the agent argued in the documentary, and white English teachers are more likely to bring schools business than black or Chinese English teachers, no matter how inexperienced they may be.

Still, the commodification of race is something Chinese employers, parents, and teachers alike should actively seek to better understand, particularly as long as Chinese continue to get the short end of the stick in all this. For all its anti-colonialist rhetoric, in some ways China still bears one of colonialism’s heaviest shackles — namely, a colonial mentality.