Recently I realised that there must be something very wrong with me. I am absolutely fine with a woman in Gorbals hurling a “Chink” at me on my birthday and fleeing on her bike, yet I still get annoyed and, in some cases, ofFeNDed, by some of the chat that is thrown about regarding Chinese students. You know the type. I won’t specify.
Subconsciously, maybe I felt respected by the woman’s open aggression and challenge. I mean, it does take guts to just throw abuse at someone. She clearly felt threatened by my mere presence, and thus – in shouting “chink” – she admitted her defeat. Although she was firing an ethnic slur at me, in that exchange we were equals. As for my fellow students, people who are supposed to be my peers, for them to openly stereotype Chinese students in front of me shows clear disregard and contempt.
Or so I rationalised.
I honestly do wish that that was the reason why I didn’t feel threatened by the woman in Gorbals. But if I have learned just one thing at uni, it is prolific navel-gazing. I have realised that maybe there is a possibility I actually just have lower expectations for her. Now, that is a very condescending thought and probably a bit classist, too. I am annoyed at myself. This definitely takes quite a few Righteous Points away from me. After two decades of middle-class shame, have I finally grown into my middle-class wanker boots? I’m annoyed again.
As for the stereotypes that came from my fellow students? To be absolutely fair, I have felt the most free, respected, and seen in Glasgow as I ever have: as a woman, and as an immigrant from the former Eastern Bloc. I genuinely love Scotland. I’d be lying if I say things weren’t worse back home. Even the most “educated” there are prone to spewing all sorts of phobia and -isms. If anything, holding white people to a higher standard would be to say that white people are and should be better.
But I’m still not satisfied. Just because there are worse evils in the world doesn’t mean that what is wrong is somehow less wrong. I do suspect that all that is accomplished by framing Chinese international students as spoiled, privileged, and out-of-touch, is that you get to mask the usual xenophobic routine as reasonable character judgement. Too often, people around me have claimed to be working class just to gain a moral high ground over the Chinese people they have labelled as middle class and privileged. I can’t tell if they think it’s “okay” to say Chinese students are all rude because they’ve been pre-framed as rich arseholes, or if they think it’s just cool to say regardless.
What really complicates this for me is that I do find myself agreeing with some of the comments. Are some students rude or inconsiderate? Maybe. In many cases it probably isn’t intentional; cultural differences do not translate well. Do many students not try to fit in? It does seem to be an issue. But then again, it’s not unheard of that language students struggle to fit in on their year abroad. It’s hard to get out of your flat, let alone socialise, when you’re not confident with your language skills. Are some students rich and privileged? Many are quite privileged, definitely. It does cost quite a lot to go to uni here, and this is public knowledge.
We must take into account the fact that self-victimisation is a common propaganda tool in socialist countries. Even as I write this column, I can feel the self-pity sluicing over me as I wallow in it. I don’t even know if the collective low self-esteem I’ve inherited is a socialist legacy or a colonial legacy. Sometimes I can’t tell if I should see White People™ as expansionist-imperialist capitalists, or colonisers. The state narrative certainly alerted me to “the arrogance of the West.” Without it, I had very little cause to feel inferior in my early years; a part of the majority in my own country, I was hardly disadvantaged by my race or ethnicity. Another chunk taken off my Righteous Points. My sudden discomfort when I moved to Glasgow only came from the shocking contrast of my new life with my life back home.
Now, I can’t openly admit any of the above to someone who has just made these stereotyping comments lest I undermine other people’s effort in fighting racism. But if I don’t admit them, I’d be a blind nationalist who is too fanatical to see the truth of her compatriots. Still, if I do, it doesn’t matter how much I qualify the statement, people often take it as a stamp of approval for further derogatory comments.
Of course, it is a tiny proportion of the lovely people here who might have a tiny bit of a problem with this, and there’s a fine line between not taking any shit and overacting. I’ve been tempted to think that there’s a larger, more toxic, post-Brexit social environment behind the symptoms, but recent political events and parenting books have taught me that it is this very extrapolating that polarises and radicalises people.
People can be shit. People can be despicable. Not only are we shit and despicable, we are equally susceptible to shit and despicability. Honestly, the sooner we accept that the sooner we can start working on the climate crisis and stop wasting our breath on moral pissing contests.
[Ka Leung – she/her]