Do You Think Chinese Girls are Pretty?

Last week I joined the challenge to talk about race by wondering Why Aren’t People Talking to Me? This week I write about seeing (and hearing).

Long ago in college, I talked about ethnicity with Duncan, a tall skinny White guy with a large Adam’s apple and black rimmed glasses, and George, a tall skinny Chinese guy with a large Adam’s apple and silver rimmed glasses. Duncan said he considered me to be Chinese-American, and George to be Chinese.

Since George and I were both American citizens, I didn’t understand why Duncan wanted to make the distinction until he said that because I was outspoken, gregarious, and majoring in counseling psychology, I was “Americanized.”  Because George was quiet, shy, introverted and majoring in engineering, he was authentically Chinese.

“I think that’s a racist point of view.”  I told Duncan, immediately confirming his judgment about my outspokenness.

He protested, “I’m not racist—really I’m not!”

“Look, I lived in China for a year,” I said, “And there were people who act like me as well as people who act like George.  Just because I don’t fit the stereotype doesn’t mean I’m any less Chinese than George.”

George was silent.  Trying to rectify the rudeness of talking about him in front of his face, I asked, “Why do you think you’re stereotypically Chinese?  Do you think it’s who you are or because of other influences?”

“Oh culture, for sure,” George said.  He told us about being chased home almost every day from school by White bullies, how his house was egged and toilet papered repeatedly.  Disappearing into the stereotype was how he survived his toxic middle class suburb.

That led to me relaying how I felt invisible at fraternity parties—I perceived I wasn’t looked at and rejected, but never seen at all.  Duncan cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, “Can I ask you an embarrassing question?”

“Sure.”  I said.

“Do you think Chinese girls are pretty?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Do you think Chinese girls are ugly?”

I was taken aback.  “Some of them. . .why, don’t you?”

He looked up, “No. . .  I don’t.”

“You don’t think they’re pretty?”

He shook his head.  “No.”

“You don’t think they’re ugly?”

He shook his head again.  ”I don’t think they’re anything–you all look the same to me.”

I stared at him.  George remained silent.

“But I’m not racist, really I’m not!”  Duncan said.

Back in my dorm, looking for sympathy, I relayed the whole conversation to Erica, my African-American roommate and best friend.

“Welcome to the real world,” she said.

Later, I separately told two White girlfriends the story and had two disturbingly identical conversations.   Both protested, “But I think you’re really pretty!”

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m pretty or ugly!” I stormed.  “I’d rather be ugly and be seen!”

And my friends confessed, “You know, I think you’re really pretty.  But I’ve never thought of Asian men as handsome or ugly.”

I was too chicken to say to their faces what I later heatedly discussed with Erica.  If all humankind is created in the image of God, then all ethnicities and races must reflect God’s beauty.  The inability to either see or distinguish beauty in any ethnic group felt like racism, pure and simple.

Yet research shows that stereotyping helps us sort through the magnitude of unfamiliar stimuli the world offers.  Our brains stereotype so we can make sense of the world.  The ability to stereotype is part of the way God created our minds.

So perhaps the problem isn’t about stereotyping or finding the unfamiliar foreign and uncomfortable.  Perhaps it’s about our hearts and attitudes.  Jesus and the prophets warn that when our hearts are calloused and our minds closed we will see but not perceive, hear but not understand, and ultimately miss out on receiving forgiveness and healing.

It’s a spiritual discipline to look and look and look some more until we finally perceive distinctions and beauty in all people.  To sit on our hands, stay in the room, zip our lips and listen until we can finally understand the heart of our neighbor.

Despite how their attitudes annoyed me, Duncan and my White girlfriends’ willingness to engage with honesty was a step towards all of us seeing and hearing in a way we never had before.

How else can we soften our hearts and open our minds?

  • Christa

    Two points, I’d like to make: 1) I think its unfair to equate not being able to quickly and easily distinguish individuals of another race with racism and 2) whether its racist or not, its not a mistake limited to whites–I have heard many anecdotes from non-whites that they find whites to all look alike. So perhaps instead of there being some deeper meaning to this fairly common mistake, perhaps being able to see the sometimes subtle differences between individuals of another race is a learned ability only gained through exposure. To the childless, all babies look alike. Maybe we all need to lighten up and stop looking for intent that isn’t there.

    One way to lighten up would be to not call someone a racist when they are honestly talking about their opinions (within reason). I say this because I find that white people are scared to talk about race for fear of making a mistake. I wonder if your friend Duncan ever openly talked about race after you called him a racist. Probably not.

    I’ll give an example. Between me and my husband, we often joke that we have trouble telling how old African-Americans are because they tend to age well. Now I’ve turned this around in my head every which way and I don’t see how this observation can be considered racist, but nevertheless I would never make this observation in front of people I don’t know very well for fear that someone would see it differently. If we are so afraid of being called racist that we over-analyze everything we say, I don’t see how race-relations are being served.

    • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

      Christa, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with both your points in the 1st paragraph, especially that the problem isn’t limited to Whites. What I had to cut from my post in an effort to make it shorter was how my Chinese friends in China couldn’t look in our American friend’s blue eyes because he “looked like a ghost.”

      I also agree that it probably didn’t help the discussion for me to tell “Duncan” that I thought his perception was racist. (Hey, I was 20 years old, young, immature, and as I wrote, outspoken). But I do believe that it’s a human challenge to try to see beauty in all types of people, even if our brains that love to stereotype have a hard time with it. That’s why I think it ultimately becomes a spiritual discipline, and I think we need to recognize it’s a discipline God wants us to do!

      I may blog on your last point next week!

  • Kristen

    Kathy,

    As you and Tara have been writing about race, I can’t help thinking about my own experience living in Japan for a year. From a dating perspective, I was ignored by all white men, who wouldn’t dream of dating a tall white culturally American woman, when so many gorgeous, petite, culturally Asian women were around.

    But every time I stepped out of the house, I felt the eyes of every Japanese person around me, on me. Even in the international city of Tokyo, I was frequently the only white person in my immediate area, and was the first ‘gaizin’ some of my new friends had ever met in person. I got questions ranging from the biological (are blue eyes weaker than brown?), to the social, and got used to having my actions and stature examined almost from the moment I walked out my door, to the moment I returned.

    I never thought about that part of my experience as having any semblance of racism though — I felt more like an oddity that people watched simply because I was different and therefore stood out from the ebb and flow of their usual life.

  • Suzanne Stack

    “To sit on our hands, stay in the room, zip our lips and listen until we can finally understand the heart of our neighbor.”
    I think this is hard for many of us, but especially any of us in the majority culture. But I agree that it is essential to look deeper into the hearts (and faces!) of those made in God’s image who may look quite different from us!

  • http://www.hierodulia.com/ Paul Duggan

    Interesting. I think the subtext there is “I am not considering those of race X as romantic/sexual/marriage partners and therefore I do not really distinguish them as ugly or pretty. They are not ‘nubile’ for my purposes.”

    Women experience an ‘invisibility” as they age too: men don’t (even in an unwelcome fashion) turn heads or notice.

    Some of this is probably unconquerable. Telling people they’re sinning if they can’t express reproductive interest (which is at the base level what the ‘pretty’ question means for many men), will just ‘trap’ folks in to ignoring the accuser.


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