The Foreign Bully, the Guest, and the Low-income Knowledge Worker: Performing Multiple Versions of Whiteness in China

Research highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021). The foreign bully, the guest, and the low-income knowledge worker: Performing multiple versions of whiteness in China. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Dr Shanshan Lan, University of Amsterdam

With the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy, more and more white Westerners are moving to China to pursue better job or business opportunities. In addition to the so-called transnational elites, there is an increasing number of middle-stratum white migrants who work as English teachers, self-initiated entrepreneurs, locally hired staff in transnational companies, lecturers in Chinese universities, and artists or creative workers in China’s media and cultural sectors. Unlike the transnational elites who usually have limited social interactions with local Chinese (Yeo and Willis 2005), this new group often depends on professional and social networks with local Chinese to consolidate their business or career opportunities. Scholars have noted the decline of social privileges associated with white skin in many Asian societies (P.C. Lan 2011; Lundström 2014; Maher and Lafferty 2014). The diversification of the white population in China matches the expansion of job markets for “foreigners” from coastal areas to smaller cities in the interior of the country. Due to the recent tightening in immigration controls and the rising tides of popular nationalism in Chinese society, the lived experiences of non-managerial and non-elite white migrants are increasingly marked by considerable tensions between privileges and precariousness (Farrer 2019; S. Lan 2021; Lehmann 2014; Leonard 2019; Stanley 2013).  However, little has been written on how different groups of white migrants make sense of and try to cope with this daily experience of precariousness.

       This paper focuses on two research questions: What are the opportunities and challenges faced by white migrants in different fields of employment and different geographical locations under the evolving nature of multiple Chinese gazes? How do various groups of white migrants engage with, negotiate, or resist the Chinese gazes through quotidian racialized performances? Existing literature on international migrants in China mainly focuses on black Africans in Guangzhou (S. Lan 2017; Bodomo 2012; Haugen 2012). The relative absence of whites in migration studies literature points to the racialization of “migrant” as a category reserved mainly for non-white people (Lundström 2017). This research denaturalizes whiteness as an invisible norm by rethinking it in a context of international labor migration and cross-cultural interaction. The paper attends to social stratification within the white population in China by moving beyond the binary between transnational corporate elites, who are often considered as privileged migrants (Camenisch and Suter 2019; Farrer 2019), and foreign English teachers, who are stigmatized as occupying a lower status within the expatriate community (Leonard 2019; Stanley 2013). Instead, it focuses on a group of middling migrants (Lehman 2014), namely self-initiated migrants who are neither recruited by transnational companies nor by talent schemes of Chinese universities, nor by commercialized brokers (as is the case of many foreign English teachers). I argue that although these white migrants have little control of the multiple and contradictory ways that they are racialized in Chinese society, they still demonstrate a certain degree of agency in manipulating the Chinese gazes for their benefit through strategic performances of different versions of whiteness. In this vein, the paper highlights the situational nature of whiteness, which is mediated by nationality, gender, class, Chinese language skills, and length of stay in China.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.