Belonging, Citizenship, and Racial Profiling

Mei-mei and I were stopped by the police yesterday morning as we were coming out of Gymboree. We were both wearing our bike helmets, and I was unlocking the bicycle when two police officers walked up and asked to see our passports, record our visa information, and confirm that we had registered with the local authorities. Once they were finished with me, they moved on the the next non-Chinese person they noticed. The whole experience was a little disturbing. I felt unwelcome, and singled out. I mean, we are living here, eating at the local restaurants, using the local schools, etc, but to law enforcement officials, the goverment, and the billions of Chinese people who do not know me I am just another outsider.

This all isn’t really a big deal for me. I am here on a 10-month cultural exchange and, while I may return, I will never aspire to be more than a tourist or, at most, a sojourner. However, what about other non-Chinese who seek to make a home a China? Here is some important information:
1. Marriage to a Chinese citizen does not confer permanent legal residency on the spouse.
2. Foreigners are eligible for single year residency visas only. They must reapply for residency each year whether or not they have lived in China for 2 years or 25.

3. There are no legal provisions in China that provide citizenship to non-Chinese immigrants. Such people can NEVER become citizens of China. Ethnic Chinese immigrants to China can become citizens even if they have never lived in the country before.

4. Children born in China to non-Chinese parents and living here their whole lives cannot be citizens unless the parents are “stateless.”

When I teach American Racial and Ethnic Relations, we spend a great deal of time talking about naturalization, and the fact that only white immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship from the founding of the country until 1952 (!!). We talk about the pragmatic aspects of such exclusion as well as the symbolic ones. For example, not having a political voice is a pragmatic benefit of citizenship, while feeling (and possibly being recognized as) able to claim equal belonging, rights, and/or commitment is a symbolic benefit of citizenship. While the U.S. has a long way to go when it comes to overcoming entrenched and active racism, at least the law does not blatantly prop up white superiority.

In China, however, it seems that nation and race are inextricable. From what I have gathered up to this point, China conceives of itself as a monolithic (97%) Han ethnic nation that welcomes 57 ethnic minority groups (particularly when they stay out in the village and engage in their “traditional” lives instead of trying to lay claim to modern interests and identities). By this view, Chinese-Americans are not REALLY Americans. The only real American is a white person, just like the only Chinese is ethnically Chinese.

Yesterday an American friend (and her 2 children) came with Mei-mei and me to pick up Jie-jie at school. While the children were playing (and my friend was chasing her youngest around), I spoke with one of the Chinese parents.
“They are our friends,” I said, “They live here in Guangzhou.” “She is Indian (from India)?” replied the parent.
“Indian? No, she is American.”
“But you are American, and her skin is so dark.”
“She’s American.” I concluded, wishing that I had the words to express the extent to which American-ness can be asserted by so many people, even if not all equally.
I told my friend, who has a parent from Lebanon and, thus, has a darker complexion than myself, about the whole thing and she laughed. “You know, I never heard that before I got to China, but now I take it as an indicator that my self-tanner is working.”

The New York Times just ran a series of editorials on race in China. Check it out here:

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