Always Foreign: An American Live Streamer in China

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1:00 AM HKT, Sat July 8, 2017 5 mins read
Hello, I’m Taylor. I’m here to use live streaming (zhibo) to practice Chinese. Last week I talked about how one makes money using this platform (specifically, I use a program called Yingke). Here’s my fan counter:

As a child of the nineties, it is all too tempting for me to think of “The Internet” as some kind of profanity-spewing, cat-obsessed demigod with self-awareness and free will. But, it’s not (at least, not until the Singularity). Whatever your grandma saw on Fox and Friends, the internet doesn’t have opinions or sinister schemes to get your kids hooked on drugs. The internet is a soapbox, a telescope, and a megaphone – it’s an amplifier, not a creator.

I’m leading off with this vaguely Wachowskian claptrap because I’ve been thinking about the idea of the internet as an amplifier of all things human – the good, the bad, and the ugly. On the one hand, I can open up my computer in a café by Tiananmen Square and be chatting face-to-face with my friends in Washington D.C. in a matter of seconds. On the other hand, I can choose any random YouTube video of puppies or babies and find people yelling racial slurs and Holocaust denials in the comments section. On still another appendage (probably a tentacle), I can open up Google images and type “hentai,” “fan art,” “creepypasta,” etc. and recreate that scene from Event Horizon where Sam Neil tears his own eyes out.

He probably just discovered 2 girls 1 cup…

But the point is, the internet didn’t create any of that, nor did it create the opinions or relationships or, erm, desires that led to any of that. It simply facilitated and provided a platform for what already existed – my friendships, some teenager’s need to provoke a reaction, and some artist’s seriously warped imagination.

[Editor’s note: Yes, Taylor, the internet is indeed a wild and crazy place with many pros and cons. Is there a point coming up sometime in the near future?]

My point is, I’m a white guy.

[Editor’s note: Sorry, I meant a salient point?]

A young, straight white guy born in America in the late 20th century in a nice comfortable household, to be specific. If you’re not great at math, let me save you the trouble – that adds up to roughly all of the advantages a human can have.

But: I live in China. This has afforded me a remarkable opportunity – and pretty much nothing highlights my privilege more effectively than referring to this as an opportunity – to actually experience some racial discrimination.

Disclaimer: No, I am not going to complain about being a privileged white guy in China. Give me some credit for not being a total cretin. At no point should you mistake my complaints for me thinking life is in ANY WAY unfair for me. Furthermore, my pointing out racism in China doesn’t mean I’m discounting racism in America or other Western countries. That is a false equivalency, and as a good-looking and intelligent RADII reader, you’re better than that. OK?

Moving on.

When I started live streaming here, I did so with a healthy amount of… let’s call it anticipatory anxiety. This is a country where young, well-educated people will literally point at someone different and say “LOOK, FOREIGNER” (some with more subtlety than others). Waiters ask my non-Chinese speaking Asian friends what the foreigner wants to eat after I’ve already ordered for both of us. People on the subway see me reading Chinese and start discussing how the foreigner could possibly be reading Chinese without for a second considering that I might understand them. People ask to touch my hair, question whether I wear colored contacts, tell me I’m a white ghost, start every single conversation with questions about where I’m from, and assume anything I eat, wear, or otherwise consume is representative of the tastes of literally every non-Chinese person on the planet. So circling back to the idea of the internet as an amplifier, I first logged onto Yingke preparing myself for the worst.

And I do mean the worst

The results? If the internet is indeed a representative cultural amplifier, then I have two big takeaways thus far:

  1. For whatever reason – I have my theories and will get to them in a minute – people born and raised in the PRC really do seem to have a hard time seeing foreigners as real people, i.e. treating them as they would a fellow Chinese person (in both positive and negative ways).


  1. For whatever other reason – see above re: upcoming theories – the Chinese internet has been about a thousand times friendlier to me than I’ve ever seen the American internet be to anyone.

First off, there’s no escaping the foreigner thing. On the macro level, people are never – at least not anytime soon – not going to call me a foreigner (I am one, after all). They’re never not going to lead off by asking me where I’m from. They’re never not going to express shock that I can speak Chinese. They’re never going to stop asking what “you foreigners” eat, drink, etc. They’re never not going to assume that anything I do isn’t representative of every other foreigner (see: not a Chinese person) on the planet.

It’s like looking into several mirrors all at once

China’s many accumulated (if not necessarily consecutive) centuries of isolation has, yes, led to vestiges of xenophobia – or at least suspicion and skepticism toward the alien. Here, foreigners are not your fellow citizens and no one is asking you to accept them as such. In China, foreigners are just that – foreigners, pure and simple. They don’t send their kids to your schools. They don’t get to vote (let’s not go there), they’re not represented in government or the media, and most importantly, they are not now and will never be Chinese.

The American experiment, in a way, spits in the face of evolution by asking a whole bunch of different tribes to live together in harmony – how well it’s working is certainly up for debate, but the point is that China has never considered trying such a thing. Everything is a product of random historical chance, and China’s isolation has resulted from a whole bunch of trends and forces that could have played out any number of other ways with a re-roll of the dice. The Chinese education system – in this rare case, I speak with some level of experience and professional authority – is a huge part of what promotes a lot of robotic and illogical thinking in China, and that’s a politically motivated phenomenon that is – just like everything else – in no way shaped by skin color.

I’m not making a value judgment here. I think the American experiment is an admirable one with a lot of successes and flaws, but I also think that Chinese society has proved itself one of the most durable and adaptable in human history.

(Let me add here that I’ve seen people write on Reddit – and heard other foreigners say from the comfort of plush bar stools – that the Chinese are inherently xenophobic, which is just a big ol’ layer cake of hypocrisy. It’s not like the Chinese are currently chanting “build that wall!” [they already tried that], nor is there widespread public hatred for foreigners of the kind we seem to see more and more every day back in the States. There’s open disapproval of foreigners from certain segments of the population, but, let’s be real, we’re the ones who elected Trump, not the Chinese.)

I’d like to end with a hypothesis that neatly sums up how I feel on Yingke. In America, we go on the internet and treat each other like shit because everyone is our permanent roommate. In China, I’m (mostly) treated with politeness on the internet because I am and will always be a guest. And that’s how live streaming and China in general feels: like I’m a guest in a home with a billion strange yet polite hosts.

They may ask me the same few questions over and over again, but they’ll tell me I’m handsome and compliment my Chinese – so who am I to complain?

POSTSCRIPT: I can’t encourage strongly enough my fellow white Americans to go live abroad for a few years, preferably where they will be loudly referred to as “foreigner.” Personally, I think this should be the basic requirement of any office that gives one power over immigrants. But there I go again with my crazy liberal fantasies.

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