Sometimes I get the red, white and blues

On June 12, the US Embassy in Beijing sent out an e-mail warning Americans to be careful at nightclubs in Beijing. It said that an embassy employee was attacked by a group of Chinese on June 9 at a club near Workers Stadium, a popular bar area and expat hangout.

“The employee, who was out with some colleagues, was hit in the head with a sharp object as he was dancing away from the group,” the e-mail said. “According to witnesses, the employee fell to the floor and was repeatedly beaten and kicked in the head by individuals serving as bouncers for the nightclub. By all accounts, the attack was unprovoked.”

Workers Stadium in Beijing. The US Embassy said one of their employees was attacked at a nightclub on the west side of the stadium. (Photo by Jason Walsh via Wikipedia)

The attack wasn’t the first targeting US citizens, the embassy said, adding that “maintaining an awareness of your surroundings and keeping a low profile are critical to avoiding potential problems.”

Asking a foreigner in Beijing – especially those who look and sound very different from the Chinese – to keep a low profile is a bit like asking a cricket marching in a pack of ants to blend in. It’s just not going to happen. Foreigners make up less than 1 percent of the city’s 20 million residents. We stand out wherever we go. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not.

It can be a good thing when the Chinese see us struggling to order food at a restaurant where the menus have no pictures to point at, and offer to help. It can be a good thing when the Chinese assume we’re all rich and received degrees from Ivy League institutions, and we get treated with a kind of respect locals don’t usually receive.

And then there’s the flip side. It’s been more than 50 years since the United States fought against China in the Korean War and even longer since the Japanese invaded China during World War II. But the animosity against these two countries is still very alive and well.

Pick up a Chinese newspaper on any given day and you’re bound to find a cartoon portraying uncle Sam as a trigger happy lone ranger always looking for a fight. In May 1999, when a US plane bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, many Chinese nationals believed Washington had decided to pick a fight with them.

Residents protest the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade outside the US Embassy in Beijing in 1999.

The US claimed the bombing, which killed three Chinese journalists, was an accident, and that the intended target was Yugoslavian government agency a suspected of arms proliferation activities. But the Chinese didn’t see it that way.

Peter Hessler, an American author who has written a trilogy of books on China, described the scene in Nanjing, where immediately after news about the bombing was broadcast people poured into the streets chanting anti-American slogans like “DOWN WITH AMERICAN IMPERIALISM!”, “DON’T EAT MCDONALDS!” and “DON’T EAT KENTUCKY!” (In Chinese, Kentucky Fried Chicken is called Kentucky). “In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, protesters set fire to the home of the American consul-general,” Hessler wrote in his book Oracle Bones.

“In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, protesters set fire to the home of the American consul-general … In Beijing, students pelted the American and British embassies with rocks and bricks and paint bombs.”

Nanjing is also home to the Nanjing Massacre Museum, a memorial to the 300,000 Chinese killed during the Japanese occupation of the city in 1937 and 1938. I toured the museum in May and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of photos of mutilated corpses, sometimes of women and children.

The massacre is still a sensitive subject in China, and denials by Japanese politicians over the number of people killed, as well as their visit to shrines that honor their war dead, stir tensions on the mainland. A Japanese friend of mine who lives in Beijing once told me he worries about the hostile feelings held by some Chinese toward his country, and he tries to speak Mandarin as much as possible to avoid standing out.

I e-mailed the US embassy recently about the attack in June. They didn’t respond to a question about whether the people who started the fight were specifically targeting Americans but they said there had been no more attacks reported against US citizens since then.

I’ve been lucky that I’ve never felt threatened in China. I’ve cut through dark alleys alone at 4 am and felt just as safe as I did walking down a busy street at noon. I’ve been cheated a couple times by taxi drivers who gave me counterfeit bills for change, but that’s about the worst thing that’s happened to me in two years in Beijing.

I know, though, it’s just a matter of time before tempers flare up again. Already, tensions have heightened over a slew of anti-China remarks made over the past year by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Beijing has repeatedly questioned the intentions of President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy.

For a cricket trying to keep his head down, that’s not a good thing.

4 thoughts on “Sometimes I get the red, white and blues

  1. When I visited Beijing earlier this Summer, I did get the feeling that I was considered a completely alien being. In one day I caught four people filming me and several taking pictures of me with their cellphones. I did not feel threatened, but I did understand at that point that it’s practically impossible for a foreigner to blend into the crowds in Beijing (if you can’t go unnoticed in the Forbidden City, where can you). Maybe he was targeted not only for being American, but maybe for being an employee of the American embassy. In any case, I wish you the best of luck, and I’m sorry if this comment was longer than it should have been.

    • No need to apologize for writing long. Thanks for the kind words. I’ve also had several people take pictures of me at tourists sites around the city. I try to be nice, pose and smile, but if I had kids and they were being photographed I might react differently.


  2. I think that any foreigner in any country is going to experience some hostility and trouble. I’ve certainly felt it everywhere I go (even in my own country, when I live in a different area). That said, I have always experienced more good than bad, and from what I just read I think that has been the case for you too.

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