White Privilege as a Western Student in China

You don't need a 4.0 to get serious scholarship money.

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Aug 4 2017, 6:30pm

Illustration by Ralph Damman

When some friends of mine came back from an exchange program in Beijing, each with a wad of $1,200 in cash they'd received from the Chinese government, my response was, "Um, what?"

The cash was their scholarship money, given to them in crisp 100 yuan bills after class one day.

Turns out you don't need a 4.0—or even a 2.5—to get that kind of money. After interviewing several more exchange students about their experiences in China, I learned that even if your grades are "shit," you might still be offered a scholarship, free accommodation, and a monthly allowance to study in the Middle Kingdom.

You may also get free booze, free entry into clubs, and professors who won't care if you skip class or use your phone during an exam. These are tough things to resist when you're a broke college student who'd rather explore the city than actually attend your lectures.

"Foreigners enjoy a very favorable situation in China, for sure," says Jon*, who worked at a Chinese university as a liaison between international business students and the staff. "If you go to a club, yes, you'll get free drinks, and you'll get in for free. Whereas Chinese people still have to pay."

These perks are a way for China to make itself more appealing to foreigners, who, Jon says, are still viewed by Chinese citizens as "super powers" and also enjoy advantages like higher wages and better job opportunities than locals.

But according to students I spoke with, not all exchange students are treated equally. While white skin awards you near-celebrity status, black skin might get you spat on outside a McDonald's or labeled as "dangerous." You might also be sized up according to your assumed race and gender at clubs, then treated in accordance with that value.

Hello again, white privilege.

For the purposes of global education, VICE has included six stories about what it's really like to live and study in China and why being treated like a VIP can either be wildly fun or weirdly dehumanizing.

Ashton*, 25
Exchange Student From: Europe
Program: Marketing

I recently went on a six-month exchange program to China. I really had no restrictions at the university. You're late? It's fine. You want to change your exam date? Fine. It's easy to use; "this is how we do things in Europe" as a justification for anything. Even bringing your phone to an exam. I'm actually going back there for my master's degree because it'll be easy for me to get good grades. I tried to find a program in Europe, but it was really difficult because my grades are shit. When I asked my old university in China if they had any programs in management, they said: "Yes, of course, we'll give you a scholarship." They're also giving me free housing, an allowance per month, and no tuition fees. So I said, "OK, yeah, I'm coming back." But all this makes you feel pretty weird because while a lot of non-white foreigners are just so fucking happy to have the chance to come to China, you're only there because it's free. For example, I'm in a WhatsApp group with 40 people who have applied for scholarships in China. There are three Westerners and 37 people from either Africa, Bangladesh, or Pakistan. The only people who got replies from the university were the three Westerners.

Before my trip, I'd heard China preferred foreigners at clubs, but I didn't understand the racism until I went there. My ex-girlfriend was a promoter at one of these clubs—she sold guest list spots to people—and got paid according to what types of people she brought in. Non-Western foreigners were level one and worth nearly nothing to promoters. The second level was Western foreigners, and the third level was pretty girls. So there was a man at the door checking "is she pretty or not pretty?" and if she was pretty, the promoter would get more money for bringing her in. The last level was models—like real models, ones staying in Beijing for shoots and stuff. Promoters would get about $20 for bringing them in.

It's also normal to get free drinks the whole night if you're white. For my farewell party, we went to a club, and there were ten people, six of them blond girls. We got two bottles of Grey Goose—worth about $300 in that club—all for free. I felt like a king at first, but it was also really weird. They were catering to our every need, and we didn't pay a thing.

It's hard to enter certain clubs if you're with black people. I have a friend from Mozambique, and once we went to a really nice club and booked a table in advance. We all met at the entrance—five Westerners and one black person—and the promoter was like, "Yeah, you cannot enter." When we asked why, he told us it was because my friend looked dangerous, which was just crazy. We argued with the guy for about 15 minutes and told him that if he didn't let us in, we'd post on WeChat that the club was racist, and so he finally let us in. From there, it was open bar all night.

Sami, 25
Exchange Student from: Finland
Studying: Law

I studied international and Chinese law in Beijing, and the first night I was there, I went out with some master's students, and they took us out to a street filled with different clubs. We got in free to all of the clubs; all the alcohol was free, and we got VIP tables. That first night I was like, "Woah, what is this?" I'm not sure if it felt wrong, but it felt weird. There'd be big lines of Chinese people waiting to get in, and we'd walk right by. Also, we went to this pretty famous club in the center of Shanghai—it's called M1NT, they've got sharks in the dance floor—and again, we just walked past this huge line, got VIP cards, and also free alcohol the whole night. Just because we were European. All the free stuff and better treatment was fun in the beginning, but in the long run, it felt... it didn't feel good.

I got preferential treatment outside the party scene, too. When my parents came to visit, we went to a restaurant that was a little fancier. I didn't book a reservation, and so there was a two-hour wait when we got there. We thought, Well, that's OK, we'll go shopping for a bit. But when we left, the staff came running after us and said, "Wait, we have a free table for you." We thought that since it was just the three of us, maybe a small table had opened up and that's why we got in, but inside there was a whole other room full of Chinese people still waiting. Throughout the meal we had four waiters serving us, people taking photos of us, and the whole experience was very strange. In China, you're often perceived as super rich if you're Western. They think you have a lot of money and you're there to party, and that's it. It gets annoying because in reality most of us are there because of grants, scholarships, and wanting to travel; we even take out loans to do it.

Erin*, 24
Exchange Student from: Canada
Studying: Law

My boyfriend and I chose to study abroad in Beijing this past summer through a program where Chinese government scholarships are available for Canadian students. Being fairly poor law students who love to travel, we were pretty intrigued by the idea of government funding.

We didn't know when we would be getting our scholarship—$1,200—or even how it would be given to us. We didn't get anything when we arrived, which we thought was a little odd, but then during our last week, a Chinese student came to the front of the class and was like, "Hey, everyone, your money's here!" Everyone cheered. Then the next day they brought in cash—stacks of freshly printed 100 yuan bills, all put into envelopes and stored up in the program administrator's office. So, 80 students lined up in the hallway, all waiting for their $1,200. Considering you can buy lunch for the equivalent of $0.80, it was a ton of money to have in cash.

Edson, 21
Exchange Student from: Mozambique
Studying: Accounting

There aren't many black people in China. I didn't want to study abroad there, but in recent years China has been investing a lot in Africa, so our government has started giving scholarships to students. From the moment I got there, things were just really different. I walked out of the airport, and my nose just started itching. There was so much pollution. I thought instantly: This place isn't good for me. Then came the stares on the train. People look at you as if you're really, really different; they've never seen someone like you, and so they take pictures.

China is growing economically, about 6 percent every year, but I don't think it's a good place to study. Some foreigners really like it because of all the free stuff. I mean, I still got the free drinks and free entry into the clubs, but it would depend on what kind of club it was and who I was with. I was with a bunch of friends from the Netherlands most times, and so I was viewed as part of their group. Actually, most people would assume that since I'm black and speak English, I must be American. And if you're American or European, Chinese girls love it, but I didn't like the attention because I'd rather be liked for who I am. The fact is if you tell them you're African, you're viewed as poor, like you don't know what an iPhone is, etc.

There were only two black people in the entire university, which was a problem for me. I would invite people in my class to go to clubs, or I'd say, "Hey, let's grab a drink or something," because I wanted to make friendships with the Chinese students. But they'd say they had to go to the library. Every time it was the same: "I have to go to the library." I tried to make friends, but they didn't let me in. Eventually, I met some people from Europe and just hung out with them. And so I didn't go to a lot of classes. My teachers never gave me a hard time about it because I think they knew it was difficult fitting in. I could do whatever I wanted. In that way, I was treated basically the same as the white students.

I remember one very sad day in particular. In China, they have a habit of spitting on the floor, and so one day I went to McDonald's and bought a Big Mac. As I was leaving, there was a Chinese man who spit on my shirt. I don't know why he did it. Anyway, I thought maybe it was a mistake, but when I looked at him, he didn't say sorry, just gave a look like "I don't like you" or something. I was sad but also angry. I didn't do anything, just walked away. And that was when I thought, You know, I can't put up with this bullshit anymore. It's too hard. I wasn't OK with myself over there.

Jackie*, 26
Exchange Student from: Canada
Studying: Law

I went on a summer exchange program to China, and afterward, I got an internship at a big law firm in Beijing. At the firm, some other interns and I would get invited every week or two to go have dinner with a group of lawyers from the firm. They'd bring us to these fancy restaurants, and they'd pay the bill, and you knew it wasn't the type of dinner they were inviting their Chinese colleagues to every week. We got invites because we were international interns. And even though I was the only white person in this particular group of interns, I was the only one they invited personally, and from there, they allowed me to bring friends. Once, during dinner, the woman who invited us was really making sure we were having a good time. She even started to dance and sing.

Often, my friends and I would go out as a big group, and night after night our table would be given several bottles of spirits, solely based on the color of our skin. Some people in my group would abstain from drinking because it was discriminatory, like white privilege at its finest. That's the kind of racial privilege caucasian people have access to in Beijing. That said, we always hear that China is taking a bigger place in the world and its economy, and so it's good to go there and see what's behind these great firewalls that prevent us from exchanging with them.

There's also a local version of Tinder, it's called Tantan, and if you're a foreigner, this app can really open some doors if you're looking to meet new people. Some of the people in my group were using it, and every single time they'd swipe, they'd get a swipe back in return. If you're white, it just isn't the same game.

Shaun, 26
Exchange Student from: Canada
Studying: Law

During my exchange program, I was photographed quite often. I remember being approached three distinct times, and each time it happened at a pretty big tourist attraction. I'm tall and caucasian, and from what I heard, Chinese people are interested in photographing someone like me because by doing so they can show their family and friends that the places they're visiting have such a high status that they attract white Westerners as well. It's like, "Look, this place is so cool, even this white guy went there!" I just kind of went along with it because I didn't feel like it was doing any harm, but it always felt a little awkward. It's like, why me? It's uncomfortable to be this, well, image of beauty or whatever. But I also think it's learned behavior culturally. One time my girlfriend and I were approached by a family, and the mother and grandmother were super into getting a picture with us, but their six-year-old daughter wanted nothing to do with it. It was like she hadn't learned the rule about wanting photos with white people.

*Names have been changed.

Follow Mica Lemiski on Twitter.

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