Don’t Be A Dick

Fenwick Smith's foreign policy.


Last week, when my doorbell rang at the optimum moment between my boyfriend leaving for work and me leaving for work—a thirty minute gap that seems to be the only time my local police station does any work—I knew who would be waiting even before I wrenched the reinforced steel door open.

I had my passport, foreign expert certificate and residence permit all primed and ready in a nearby drawer. Almost before the barely post-pubescent police officer opened his mouth, my papers were thrust in his face with a winsome grin and a cheeky, “I’ve got my documents ready, elder brother.”

I knew all about the 100 days of checks. I knew I’d have to fill in forms, answer questions about myself, my work and my partner. I was cool with that. After all, I have had nothing to hide since I went legal three years ago. One hour later, the scruffy, besneakered officer departed and I whistled on my way to work, an hour late. Okay, so they had checked my boyfriend’s hukou and ID information. No problem. He’s legal, too.

Later that day, the horror stories started to trickle in. One friend’s entire office had been threatened with “deportation on sight” if they failed to present documentation on demand. Another acquaintance, also legal, had been hauled into a side room at her local paichusuo, told her visa was a fake and she’d have to leave the country. She was rescued by the timely arrival of a Chinese friend to vouch for her. I heard tell of random roadside checks, police sweeps on Sanlitun bars, and witnessed for myself police announcements with an immense and, ironically, white fist crushing the sanfei—the “three illegals.”

No big deal, I said to myself. This is just the police justifying the continued extension of the immigration enforcement budget they got during the Olympics that has never been scaled down.

The police don’t upset me. Even when they’re being assholes to my face, which seems to be whenever they’re not busy refusing to answer callouts. This is what upsets me:

As soon as I got wind of this video, I knew it meant trouble. The guy was a rapist; he deserved no less than he got. The girl was a victim—a fact ignored by the purportedly “outraged” netizens gleefully circulating compromising images of her without a thought as to how they might feel if images of them being raped were circulated everywhere. The vigilantes who dealt with him (barring Mr. Brave who courageously puts the boot in when the villain is definitively out for the count) aren’t necessarily worthy of praise, but we can understand their violent reaction to such a flagrant and despicable act.

No attempt, however, to put his crime in perspective matters. Because the guy was a foreigner. Drunk, yes, visibly a douchebag, yes, but a foreigner. Which changes everything.

Had this been a Chinese-on-Chinese atrocity, people would have likely shrugged.

Had this been a Chinese-on-Chinese atrocity, it’d probably still have done the rounds online, particularly if the perpetrator were an official. But people would have likely shrugged and said, “These things happen. He’s a vile beast, but he got what he deserved, hope she can recover from her ordeal, blah, blah, blah, next self-immolation story, please.”

But since the perpetrator was a foreigner, cue a raft of “bad foreigner” videos, ranging from Sweaty Feet Gate to Korean KFC Gate. Cue 100 days of crackdowns. Cue the inevitable Weibo shitstorm, talk of the Opium Wars, the Carving Up Of China, Lin Zexu, the Rape of Nanking, and, finally, the standoff with the Philippines. Nationalism and sex are melded into one—the attempted rape of this poor girl outside a subway station is a microcosm of the rape of China by foreigners, past and present.

When a foreigner commits a crime, particularly a sexual crime, in China, it’s different. Just as it’s different when a foreigner comes to the aid of a Chinese citizen, or simply shares their Happy Meal with a Chinese beggar. Symbolically, the rules change. Foreigners, regardless of nationality, all belong to that one unified entity which is guowai. One offends, and, as far as the locals are concerned, we’re all at fault.

When a foreigner does good, it’s better than a Chinese person doing good. When a foreigner does bad, it’s worse than a Chinese person doing bad.

When a foreigner does good, it’s better than a Chinese person doing good. When a foreigner does bad, it’s worse than a Chinese person doing bad. This isn’t right, but it’s the way things are, and any attempt to quiet the rhetoric around a foreigner’s attempted rape of a Chinese girl, or a foreigner’s refusal to move his feet off a Chinese person’s headrest on the train, doesn’t look like a call for calm, reasoned perspective. It looks like an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. We don’t like it, but them’s the rules.

Which is why I try so hard to be one of the “good foreigners” in China. It goes back to a mortal dread of the police as a child—I’d smile waveringly at any officer who crossed my path in a pathetic desire for them to think of me as a “good lad.” I do the same when passing through the trouser-soaking Homeland Security checkpoints on my visits to the States. In China, too, I cooperate with the police to an absurd degree. I even feel guilty when I run a red light on my bicycle, even though I’m in the middle of a crowd of fifty Chinese cyclists doing the same. I take care to be culturally sensitive, even when criticizing China to my Chinese friends, to whose cultural knowledge I constantly defer. I try to be polite and courteous even when confronted with downright abusive service people. I attempt to queue even when such attempts are futile. I keep much of my knowledge of China, acquired through four years of study and four years of residence, to myself in most social situations, so as not to come off as the arrogant foreigner who thinks he knows China better than the Chinese.

Why do I do this? So that when dicks like tracksuit-rape-man do what they do, Chinese friends, co-workers and acquaintances will think of me, and think, “Well, I know a foreigner, and he’s not at all like that. I don’t think he’s ever attempted to rape anyone.”

It’s important I make this effort. Because, in China, if you’re white, all eyes are upon you, all of the time. Deportment, even in relative privacy, will be observed and judged by all but the most intimate friends.

To those who are railing against Chinese xenophobia: you won’t change a goddamn thing.

To those who are railing against Chinese xenophobia—I appreciate your gripes. But you won’t change a goddamn thing.

We may hate to do it, but we have to dispense with the “this is who I am” bullshit that might work in the States. By hook or by crook, we’re ambassadors here, and unless we all moderate our behavior, every last one of us will be tipped as a potential tracksuited rapist.

You want to get drunk? Fine—but if someone throws a punch, you’ll have to be the better person and roll with it. Anything else and you’ll become the bad guy. Dating a local? Go for it, but don’t slobber all over him or her in public and expect people to react as they would if you were both of the same nationality. Abusive waiter? Kill him or her with unflappable kindness. Irritate that egomaniacal cop or passport official by complying meekly and wholeheartedly with their requests, no matter how absurd. And finally, don’t complain of police harassment if you’re working illegally and you get into trouble for having a tourist visa. You knew you were breaking the law. You got caught.

Follow the “don’t be a dick” rule, and, at best, people will think and speak highly of you. At worst, they’ll have nothing to say on the subject of foreigners. Either way, we’ll all have a quiet life.

Is this plea a capitulation to a xenophobic police state? Damn right. Why? Because it’s the xenophobic police state I happen to live in and right or wrong, this is their turf and we follow their rules.

Who knows, your saintlike behavior might make you the star of your very own Internet meme. And if, in the future, the authorities deem it appropriate to deport or incarcerate the lot of us, maybe, just maybe, all those people we’ve been an example to will step in and defend us.