On spotting brainwashed commie-loving mainlanders

Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand

I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react to that. Posted among other remnants of last fall’s Occupy Central protests, these words on the “Democracy Wall” at the University of Hong Kong drew me into a conflict I was reluctant to participate in.

I was reluctant because Asian racial issues don't typically occupy the mainstream –– in the U.S. specifically, race is usually focused on African-Americans and Caucasians. Those who crusade for other social causes don’t often recognize or acknowledge discrimination against Asian-Americans. That’s why, despite being labeled Chinese, American, Chinese-American, and (on those standardized test questionnaires we all love) “Asian/Pacific Islander,” I personally consider myself none of the above. It’s not because my origins are complicated (I was born in China and immigrated to America at the age of four), but because many people don’t think conversations about Asian identity are necessary or important, leading to simplified viewpoints and deeply-rooted stereotypes.

Despite my best efforts to remain unaffected by these issues, “brainwashed, commie-loving Mainlanders” triggered a sense of injustice that left me with no choice but to take a position.

Hong Kong University’s Democracy Wall wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. I also noticed a difference in reception when I spoke English instead of Mandarin to locals, where there was more respect towards Western culture. On the advice of at least three friends, I primarily used English despite the greater difficulty in communication. If I resorted to Mandarin, I would deliberately emphasize my American origins, to be met with raised eyebrows, impressed “ah’s” and nods of approval.

Wondering why there was so much animosity, I typed, “Why does Hong Kong hate China” into Google and was surprised by the results. The majority of news articles I read explained the Occupy movement through political ideology, but beneath the surface there was a much more ordinary dispute. It came down to resources.

One after another, photos and videos showed Chinese tourists on shopping sprees, filling overflowing suitcases with products from Hong Kong, often blocking doorways. Others captured parents changing their infants’ diapers on the subway. More serious was the complaint that too many pregnant Chinese mothers were booking hospital beds in order to give birth in Hong Kong, securing better educations and healthcare for their children than they would have otherwise received in their home country. The underlying theme was that “Mainlanders” were overrunning a sophisticated, metropolitan Hong Kong with savagery and law breaking. “Spot the Mainlander” was a joke that challenged viewers to pick out the obvious foreign infestation.

I was even more disturbed when I remembered the second line on the Democracy Wall, “To all others, we thank you for your understanding as we strive to create a more fair, just and equitable Hong Kong for our future generations to come.”

It was a noble sentiment, if not for the fact that it followed “brainwashed” and “commie-loving.” The worrisome part was not that someone held these opinions –– I am certain that they do not reflect an entire country’s view –– but the fact that these words were mounted inside a pristine glass case under the title of “democracy,” a word which has a habit of smoothing over many complexities in political debate. Regardless of context, these were offensive and prejudicial insults, and students and tourists walk by them every day, taking photos without any recognition of the damage they cause. This is not the documentation of a historical event –– the label “Democracy Wall” takes away any such neutrality. This is hypocritically barring other people from the same human dignities that Occupy claimed to fight for, silently accepting it as some kind of tourist attraction or part of a social movement instead of explicit racism.

In the end, I think it’s a good thing that many people, myself included, have ambiguous identities, forcing us to create our own values rather than inheriting the set of our predecessors. We love to make fun of questionnaires that list entire continents under one racial label, but the fact that we don’t take them seriously enough to change them reflects a dangerous complacency toward generalizing people and sorting them into convenient categories. I hope one day it will be impossible to “Spot the Mainlander” or anyone else, so that people will be forced to slow down and listen if they want to know who someone really is.

Lin Lan is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Economics. Her column “Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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