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.