This article originally appeared on VICE UK
In 2005, albino British-Pakistani Imran Zeb travelled to China to carry out research for his PhD. He ended up staying in the country for good, loving the culture, the language, the people. But there was also a more unusual element to living there.
People saw his pale skin and hair, and "read" him as a white European. Although he was never actively deceptive about his ethnicity, he allowed people to carry on thinking this, and received the advantages of being perceived as white. With all the media discussion of white privilege, and some on the right denying its existence, he shares his story here.
After moving to China, I soon became aware that I passed as white. I moved to a relatively homogenous society, and still stand out as a foreigner, but it felt as though I benefitted from a few advantages. One of the main perks is that some Chinese girls seem to view pale skin as attractive. I can't say that this applies across the board, because China's obviously a vast country with a multitude of different cultures and social norms, but it's definitely something I've experienced.
As a "white guy" in Shanghai, I've tried randomly walk up to a woman and starting a conversation – I can often get her contact info, sometimes even if she's with a fella. When I've seen Chinese blokes try and do this, the girl has usually told them to get lost. I think "western-looking" guys are favoured because they dominate the celebrity world.
Although Islamophobia in China doesn't seem as blatant as it is in the UK, it's definitely still present, and the fact that I'm seen as being white (though I am Muslim) partially insulates me from it. The situation with the Uygurs, a predominantly Islamic ethnic group in the Xinjiang region, has had a significant impact on how Muslims are perceived here. An academic paper on their situation published in the Equal Rights Review in 2011 described them as being perceived as "violent, knife-carrying, pick-pocketing criminals", which sums up how many people see them. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. They suffer a lot of discrimination, and I think the criminal element in their midst arose as a response to this. Whatever the underlying cause, it's added to the negative image of Muslims, which I basically often manage to escape due to my skintone.
If I was viewed as Muslim, I would likely face some of the usual assumptions and misconceptions. In my time here, I've learned that some Chinese people say they think that Muslims don't eat pork because the pig is their ancestor. They think it's out of respect, as with sacred cows and vegetarianism in Hinduism. After repeatedly hearing people saying this, I posted a message on a group in WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of Whatsapp, asking why people think pork is forbidden in Islam. Sure enough, some responded, saying that we Muslims descended from pigs. There were a host of other misconceptions as well, including "They think the pig can bring them good luck" and "They consider pigs sacred". One person even said "Because the pig is Allah."
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So it seems pale skin prevents me from being viewed as a relative of the pig. That's not to say the fact that I'm mistaken for being white has completely shielded me from Islamophobia here, though. I was once refused a teaching gig because the head teacher said: "Oh, you have a Muslim name. Maybe you'll teach the kids how to be terrorists." There's not much that you can really say to that.
Although the advantages of being pale in China far outweigh the disadvantages, some Chinese people still have prejudiced beliefs about white people. I asked some locals what their views on white westerners are, and the answers included statements such as "they have sex with lots of different girls" and "some have BO". On the plus side, one young woman did say they've got huge dicks.
Overall, my move to China has been advantageous in many different ways. I get to sort of shapeshift, gleaning the benefits that could to be gained from being perceived as white and escaping some of the prejudices that face South Asians back home in the UK. Shanghai is also massive, so I'm able to remain relatively anonymous and don't get too much attention for having albinism. I'm very happy with life here.
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