Beijing, China (CNN) — In China, white people can be rented.
For a day, a weekend, a week, up to even a month or two, Chinese companies are willing to pay high prices for fair-faced foreigners to join them as fake employees or business partners.
Some call it “White Guy Window Dressing.” To others, it’s known as the “White Guy in a Tie” events, “The Token White Guy Gig,” or, simply, a “Face Job.”
And it is, essentially, all about the age-old Chinese concept of face. To have a few foreigners hanging around means a company has prestige, money and the increasingly crucial connections — real or not — to businesses abroad.
“Face, we say in China, is more important than life itself,” said Zhang Haihua, author of “Think Like Chinese.” “Because Western countries are so developed, people think they are more well off, so people think that if a company can hire foreigners, it must have a lot of money and have very important connections overseas. So when they really want to impress someone, they may roll out a foreigner.”
Or rent one.
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As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I sometimes wonder why a host country community based organization applies for a partnership with Peace Corps. I’m sure they get debriefed on the three simple goals which are:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
And sometimes as volunteers, we feel like there should a 4th goal:
4. Helping promote a better understanding that not all white people are like those on LaTormenta (which is a South American Soap Opera with poor acting and bad values)
With that aside, I wonder if these small organizations have picked up on what the Chinese are saying here- “to have a few foreigners hanging around means a company has prestige, money and the increasingly crucial connections– real or not– to businesses abroad.
Sometimes, it is as if your organization is showing you off. Showing others that they are fantastic- ” Look! We have a “token white guy” working withus.” Peace Corps can’t stress enough that our volunteers are here to impart knowledge leading to sustainable development rather than endless money bags. They get frustrated after we repeatedly say how we are not going to pay for new computers, the next training, airtime, their lunch. Somehow, they also don’t understand that I’ve never hung out with Obama and I can’t call him up so he can come back to Africa. Community trainings and workshops are a fantastic way to learn but I wonder if they sometimes use us as little pawns to show face to others. You never know…
So, not only can you feel used by your host organization, but you have people in the community who want that “token white guy” friend as well. I’ve had multiple people come up to me randomly to chat. Once, a lady was on a bicycle taxi but get off halfway to her destination so that she could walk beside me and then proceed to ask for money to support her project. There was a guy who walked for half a mile next a couple of us saying how he was with a church and they needed start up money for a sports program. They talk about you paying for their education, you sponsoring them to live in your country… oh, but we’ll be friends first they say. Now that I know your intentions, I think I’ll pass.
If you think about it, if host country nationals have the idea that having a volunteer for 2 years will bring them prestige, money, and connections and then they realize that we can’t give them that to the level they desire… well, we are kinda disappointing to have around.
Thankfully, not all host organizations see us this way. Finding people to hang out with who are more concerned about who we are here rather than our connections or what a white person symbolizes can be hard but is doable.
The Chinese might say that face is more important than life itself, but to me it seems like a lie in this context. I could only hope that being true to ourselves and living life honestly with others without pretending to be someone we aren’t or using others to give off an image would be the type of life we strive to live.