As part of China’s controversial development policy in Ethiopia and Africa at large, Ethiopia is full of Chinese construction workers commissioned to build the roads. In fact, the majority of foreigners in Ethiopia, especially in the remote countryside are mostly Chinese. This has led many Ethiopians to believe that all foreigners are Chinese. And so when they saw me walking and hitchhiking through the countryside, they similarly assumed I was Chinese. From people squinting their eyes at me to yelling “CHINA…CHINA MAN,” I became one of few westerners to experience racism as a Chinese man.
The racism began when I first entered Ethiopia through the city of Gondar. As I walked through the streets a little kid yelled at me from across the road. He said, “Knee-How?” and then put out his hand for some money. I chuckled at him and then gave him a few notes. Little did I know at the time, but this would be the first of many “Knee-Hows.”
After being greeted in Chinese for a second and then third time, it began to get on my nerves a little bit. Not only did they yell “Knee How,” but they would sometimes make a squinty face at me or just simply shout “CHINA” as I walked by. Eventually, I started yelling back, “I am NOT Chinese! Have you ever seen a Chinese man with BLONDE hair!”
Although I am a quarter Japanese, very few people can guess that I have Asian blood. While I do have high cheekbones and a somewhat ethnically ambiguous look, I am also blonde, blue eyed, and 187 cm tall.
“How could they possibly think I was Chinese,” I thought.
It was only until I got into the countryside and saw countless Chinese men working on the roads did I realize why. It was also there that the shouts and faces increased dramatically.
Eventually I began to internalize the constant proclamations. I began to question everything I knew. I thought to myself, “maybe I have been in denial my whole life and no one had ever had the heart to tell me before the Ethiopians.” And right then and there, I understood. I was in fact a full blooded Chinese man from China.
From then on, when people would yell “CHINA, CHINA,” I would respond very dryly with, “Yes China. Good Guess” I even started correcting people’s grammar. I would say very slowly, enunciating each syllable, “Nooo, not CHI-NA…. You say, CHI-NE-SE.”
Part of me now believed I could even speak Chinese. So sometimes I would shout back at them in my best fake Chinese. Though I would try and sound as stern and serious as possible, they would just laugh at me and continue to shout, “CHINA, CHINA!” It was relentless.
It didn’t bother me that I was now a Chinese man. What really bothered me was the mocking tone and high pitch by which they yelled China at me. Not to mention the squinty faces they would make using their fingers. It was just plain racist and made me feel like less a person just because I was Chinese.
All joking aside, I now truly understand what it is like to be a Chinese man in Ethiopia. And I have to say, it is not easy. In fact it is incredibly agravating. However, it isn’t just Ethiopia where people are confused as being Chinese. In fact throughout the Middle East, all Asians, whether they be Thai or Japanese, are confused as being Chinese. As a result of my perspective gained in Ethiopia, I now also know how angering and frustrating it is to be labeled a different nationality. So, if you don’t know someones nationality, then don’t try and guess it. It’s just plain annoying. Finally, if you’re ever in Ethiopia or are an Asian backpacking through the Middle East or most anywhere, it’s best to just accept the fact that you are now Chinese because trying to explain the contrary just isn’t worth it.
Check out the video below to see an Ethiopian trying to impress and comfort me with traditional song from my Chinese homeland.
Let Me Know What You Think!
Ben Donter says
Bro its genetically impossible for someone who is 1/4th asian to look asian. 99.9995% of the time1/4th asians look pure white, often whiter than alot of europeans. so i highly doubt you have any asian traits at all. keanu reeves is as asian looking as someone 1/4 th asian can look. your white. accept the fact.
The Runaway Guide says
You should see my cousins. I have a lot of asian culture in me though.
Ras Yared says
I first would like to appologize for the discomfort you experienced in my homeland. And thank you for visiting Ethiopia and speaking openly of your experieces. My Japanese friend who actually is near fluent in Amharic is frequently mistaken for Chinese and I never fail from correcting others. It affects me more than her or perhaps she got better at hiding it.. anyways,
Gondar as you might have seen is an ancient city who had had no connection to the outside world for centuries, so consider these naive acts of excitments for what they truly are…out of love. We’ve high regards for East Asians and their cultures.. unlike the West. Ask any caucasian who’d visited Ethiopia… how many of times ‘ferenji!’ was directed at them? Thats why they like to think of everyone as native Chinese (whom they love) and before their arrival every Asian tourist was Japanese.. for ex.
We sometimes say in amharic, ‘japan yemetmasell konjo’ used if a girl has squinty eyes.. meaning, ‘she hasbeautiful eyes like a japanese’ (squinty eyes are considered beautiful.) There is even a famous song sang gloryfing korea, japan and its’ women.) Recently there is one song made for china and chinese women too. I hope you can overlook our rude ways of showing love.
The Runaway Guide says
I didn’t realize Ethiopians find asians attractive, that’s really cool. Thanks for the insight. Most of the time, it didn’t bother me so much. I didn’t mind people yelling out firinge or china man all the time cause I realized that they were just curious and wanted to get my attention in the only way they knew how. But I spent a month walking and hitchhiking and on some days, I was too tired and sometimes took it the wrong way. But overall, looking back, I had an awesome time. I love Ethiopians especially teddy afro :) and Injera! Thanks for getting in touch and filling me in. Cheers,
Its a sad part of life for many Asian people: If you have sqinty eyes and yellow skin, you’re only Chinese. But I find enjoyment out of saying the true answer which they never expect.
Man: Oh really!? but you look chinese
Me explain my story then reaffirm my australian roots.
Conversation gets better.
Its a neccessary part of life and traveling I guess. You’re right in that they dont bother guessing and just assume. Then there’s reverse racisim that I experienced when I was studying in Taiwan. I tried to get some english teaching jobs, being an Australian native speak, only to be rejected simply because I wasn’t white. Apparently, to show that the school are doing a great job, having a white teacher who cant really teach is better than an native-english speaking overseas born chinese…Sometimes the world doesnt make sense. Hopefully withe the advancement of technology and internet, we’ll all get better educated..hopefully
The Runaway Guide says
Man, it seems rough and hard to get away from the stereotype. I am right on the cusp of looking Asian. Most people can’t really tell what I am but they also guess more European, which is right. But it’s like this for much of my family. Even a few of my cousins with similar mixes experience this to a degree. Whatever down’t kill you makes you stronger right?
“I now truly understand what it is like to be a Chinese man in Ethiopia.” It’s not just in Ethiopia — it’s all over the world. I think the greater lesson here is not just ‘don’t guess someone’s nationality’, or ‘get used to being confused as Chinese’ — it is, don’t judge people based on their looks, and if you are a minority traveler, be prepared to encounter some harassment solely because of them.
I’m American, but people don’t care — all they see when they look at me is an Asian face. I’ve encountered what you experienced in Ethiopia everywhere, and related most with this line: “It made me feel like less a person just because I was Chinese.”
Thank you so much for sharing this. You’re lucky, the racism ended for you when you left Africa. For us full-time Asians it never does, and hopefully this post will open some people’s eyes to what travel is like for the non-Caucasian.
The Runaway Guide says
Totally agree, well put. You oughta come to ny. I think people are way less judgmental here. It’s refreshing. But hey, in least in asia you get to blend in. When I’m over there, especially in Japan, they treat me like some kind of dumb giant, always wanting to take a picture with me. I’m not even that tall >< 6'2''.
Aunt Trish says
I think grandma has rubbed off. Technically your one quarter Korean not Japanese even though Japanese is one of the many languages you speak. Fantastic article, experiencing this in ethiopia was priceless.
If only the all humans in the entire world of all colors and religions truly understood we are all one. We are all made up of the same blood, sweat, heart and desires just different stories.
The Runaway Guide says
Hey Aunt Trish,
I know, I think she has. Well put, really well put. We are all the same.