Ideas about racial hierarchies are not outdated anathema here but unquestioned belief.
Setting off to spend a year teaching English in Zhejiang province in south-eastern China, I expected plenty of surprises. But what struck me most was something they tend not to tell you about in the guidebooks: the racism.
It started when I went around the classroom, asking pupils which city they were from. When I got to a slightly darker-skinned boy, his classmates thought it was hilarious to shout ‘Africa!’ It’s a theme. A girl with a similar complexion was taunted with monkey sounds; her peers refused to sit next to her, saying she smelt bad. I apparently erred when, teaching the word for wife, I showed my students a picture of Michelle Obama. The image of the then First Lady was greeted with exaggerated sounds of repulsion: ‘So ugly!’ they said. ‘So black!’
Such comments would have been treated harshly in a British classroom a quarter-century ago, let alone today. But my own protestations were met with confused faces — crestfallen that they’d disappointed their teacher, but clueless as to the nature of their mistake. And this stretches far beyond the classroom. To many Chinese, ideas about racial hierarchies are not outdated anathema but unquestioned belief.