China is a true land of opportunity for white people. It’s no secret that across Asia any fool with a foreign face can pick up a job teaching children to speak English. Places like Korea and Japan are full of these refugees from the West, accumulating massive bank accounts and “working” several hours a week. I’ve spent nearly three years standing in classrooms and pretending to teach. But in China it’s a bit different. The teachers work so rarely and are so few and far between that there are other jobs on offer: rent-a-foreigner, whitey-for-hire, your own personal Caucasian.

Foreigners are held in surprisingly high regard throughout China, a place where not so long ago we were considered barbarians and savages. People on the street tend to look at us and see more than drunken louts posing as teachers, or backpackers with TEFL fake certificates. They see potential diplomats of foreign governments or CEOs of international corporations. Thus, jobs are created. Odd jobs. Chinese businessmen will pay us to stand around and talk about things like Scotland’s vast gold fields and the giant technology parks of Siberia. Our companionship and endorsement makes them look better than any advertising could. In a land where face is all, having a white guy on your side means everything.

For the past year I’ve been posing as an expert on Australian history, and so this sort of ruse is no difficult task. I’ve become a bullshit artist. I stay one step ahead of my students, and likewise I make sure to say no more than I can back away from in conversation with some potential investor in a scheme to mine oil underneath the Statue of Liberty. It doesn’t really matter, though. No one here speaks much English.

A few months ago I was offered the chance to go on TV and participate in some sort of game show. You occasionally see white people on TV, stumbling about and flubbing their lines, posing as experts on weird subjects. It was a Chinese friend who passed along this offer. She promised me that if I was “smart enough” I would walk away with a brand new washing machine. “I already have a washing machine,” I said. She didn’t care. She would be on TV beside me, acting as translator. In the end, it would probably have become her washing machine.

It’s not the first time I’ve been offered, asked or forced to go on TV in the one year that has elapsed since I arrived in this odd land. One of my co-workers has been on TV dozens of times. Sometimes it’s a favour, sometimes it’s for fun, and sometimes it’s for stupidly big paycheques. Sometimes, even, a guy jams a camera in your face and won’t turn it off until you’ve walked far enough away that he can’t see you anymore.

One of my friends has made thousands of dollars playing guitar for spoiled rich kids who want to cut albums. He plays in numerous bands and is the only one who actually gets paid. It’s the white face that gets the gig, after all. Even I’ve been offered a career as a guitarist. “Don’t worry,” they tell me, “We’ll turn the guitar right down. No one will hear you.”

Last week I was asked to read a speech at the wedding of an extremely wealthy couple. It wasn’t a particularly big surprise. In China they pay people to cry at funerals, and if you’re white it’s a real cash cow. In this case, the money was fantastic – $100 for 15 minutes of talking.

“No way,” I said. “No fucking way.” I knew what would happen. Fifteen minutes would become nine hours and I would be paraded around as The White Monkey. I didn’t feel like being professionally white for a whole day.

After two hours, the people called back. “Okay, okay,” they said. “$250.” The money had more than doubled in two hours. They were desperate. I began to mull the offer over. I couldn’t think of anything worse than standing in front of a huge room full of people, even if they couldn’t understand a word that I said, and I didn’t want to spend the whole day pretending to be friends with some random couple, letting all the guests practice their English and take millions of photos of me.

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry but I really don’t feel comfortable…”

“Please,” they pleaded. “We really need a priest…”

Suddenly, everything changed.

“A priest?”

I didn’t really need the money, although it would’ve been nice. What I wanted in life was experience, preferably a bizarre experience. Posing as a priest would be just that. “Okay,” I told them. “I’ll be your priest.”

“Thank you.”

“You mean, ‘Thank you, father.’”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

In the end there was no speech. I had to perform the whole marriage ceremony. “Do you take this man…?” “Does anyone here object…?” “I now pronounce you…” All that bullshit. In front of 500 guests, I stood up and pretended to be a priest. The priest, they called me.

I’ve always been crippled by shyness, and yet Asia has largely broken me of that fear. Any time I step out my front door I am a spectacle. Standing on stage is no worse than taking a bus or going to the supermarket. Next year I will return to the West and face a life of the same invisibility as everyone else, where I’ll need more than whiteness to secure a job. But it’s not all that bad. My resume will now look at little like this:

David S. Wills
Professional Caucasian

Education
25 yrs experience of whiteness
MA Literature

Work
Teacher, farmer, priest, editor, salesman, author, driver, cleaner, bookstore manager, rock star, babysitter, actor.

Additional qualifications
Good public speaker (if audience doesn’t speak English). Fluent Konglish and Chinglish.

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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

33 responses to “Professionally White”

  1. D.R. Haney says:

    Are you now fluent in Chinese, David?

    An actor friend of mine who could barely get arrested as an actor here in L.A. went to Korea for a vacation and had jobs fall into his lap. He’s now moved to Seoul, where he called me recently and told me I had to move there, that I would make bundles doing voice-over, for instance, or teaching. He gave me some numbers to call about the latter, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Oh, and he recommended that I lie.

    About being a professional white person: I think it was the same, or similar, for blacks in Greenwich Village in the late fifties and early sixties. All the cool white people wanted to have a real live Negro at their parties, or they wanted to show off a Negro “friend” at the parties of others. If you were cool and black and living in New York, you practically had to hire an assistant to help you manage your social life. That’s how great the demand was, so I’ve read.

    • Don’t go to Seoul!!!!!! Have you learned nothing from my stories?????? Seriously, though, in Korea there are so many people going for the good jobs that you would have to try hard and the pay would never be that great. They typically hire Russian laborers to do acting and modelling jobs, at a fraction the price of an English speaker. Come to China and they will fall into your lap. One of my friends does voiceovers for ESL textbooks. He has to pretend to be British, Australian, South African, American (well, actually, he is American…) and everything else. It sounds like fun. And it’s easy, easy money.

      You’re right about black people back then. I remember reading something about that in an old Beat book. Vesuvios, in San Fran, I think used to do the same. Or maybe that was just hip people, regardless of race.

      I’m not yet fluent in Chinese. I spent about 9 months learning from an online course, but I really didn’t give it much attention. Although I don’t teach that many hours, with Beatdom and The Dog Farm and all that bullshit I really don’t have as much free time as you’d think. I picked up the pace a little over a month ago and got a tutor. We started doing lessons once a day, but then I got sick and cancelled them. I haven’t learned a thing in two weeks now, unfortunately. You know when you get sick and you just can’t be bothered to think, because you’re so tired? Yeah. That’s been what it’s like.

      In other words, I’m lazy and looking for excuses.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I never assumed that you have a lot of free time, David. I wouldn’t think that most TNB contributors have a lot of free time.

        Now, correct me if I’m wrong — and I may well be — but I wrote a note to you after my actor friend said I should come to Seoul, that there was money to be made there, and you more or less wrote back that he was right. That was part of the reason that I actually considered going to Seoul, even though I never had a desire to live in Asia. I’ve thought about living in a lot of places — Australia, South America, Canada, various places in Europe (not including Belgrade, I mean) — but never Asia. When my actor friend contacted me, it was the first time I had considered it.

        Are you feeling any better?

  2. Irene Zion says:

    David, I love your strange tales of life in various parts of Asia.
    You need to change your TNB bio, though. You’ve alreadypublished The Dog Farm. You are no longer “whoring it out.”

  3. […] have a new post up at The Nervous Breakdown. It’s about being a white man in Asia and how awesome that can be. Here’s the […]

  4. So… we should start an import business, is what you’re saying?

    • You mean you want to start importing white people to Australian? Gee, I don’t know… Didn’t the British try that scheme a few years ago? I’m not sure the novelty value would really be the same. I doubt that if we sent a couple of white guys to stand in the middle of downtown Perth, they’d get picked up to go host weddings and play in rock bands.

  5. EarthDog58 says:

    “Any fool with a foreign face” … well, you said it, kid.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    Yay! Dear Leader David!! You are the best professional white person I know with the very best stories. But what I want to know is why I now meet so many people from Seoul? I had met maybe two people from Korea before knowing you and now every second person I meet is from Seoul or Daegu. It’s great, because I just relate all your stories and it’s awesome!

    • I had never met a Korean person until my flight to Korea, and now I see them everywhere. When I went back to Scotland this summer with my wife, there was a tour group of maybe 15 Koreans standing outside my parents’ house. Why? I have no idea. We live in the middle of nowhere. My guess is that the quality of music dropped so badly that it caused a mass exodus circa 2008, and that the people who we’re seeing are Kpop refugees.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        No idea? Don’t be silly. They were hoping to see you.

        They were all relatives of the kids you taught in Korea, hoping to give you shit needles.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Don!!! This comment is going to make
          me laugh all day! Shit needle. Ha ha ha!!!

          • Don Mitchell says:

            Not as funny as David’s Shit Needle posting a while back. That was amazing.

            • Zara Potts says:

              Seriously, the shit needle post will never lose its appeal. I still find myself thinking about shit needles at the most inappropriate times. Even on Friday when I was getting my eyebrows tweezed by my lovely Korean beauty therapist I couldn’t help but want to ask her about the shit needle technique!!

              • I’m honoured that you both still remember that post, and that I’ve helped educate the world about ancient Korean pastimes. I think those folks at the Korean Tourism Office need to include shitneedline in their adverts. That’d really get people’s attention.

                Sadly, the shit needle doesn’t seem to have taken hold in China. In fact, this country is very tame compared to Korea. I think Mao stamped out the weirdness during the Cultural Revolution: “No shitneedling, okay? Seriously. We can’t become the most powerful country on earth if you’re all poking each other in the butthole and sniffing your fingers.”

  7. Frannie Mae says:

    Too bad Asian Americans don’t get to sell their faces as easily as you guys. But can we at least get decent gigs in China?

    • Language is important, but it’ll always be tougher for people that don’t look white to get jobs. Then again, you guys can walk down the street incognito and we can’t. Which is nice, sometimes.

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    You write about the multiple facets of otherness very effectively, Padre.

    I spent a long time being the other, in a tribal society, and being referred to as “our white man” was almost always comforting, but sometimes when thrust to center stage to be a white man it was uncomfortable. It was never quite like “we’ve got a white man, what have you losers got?” but sometimes it was close. And then being the white rep when we encountered the white colonial world together — that was always interesting.

    It seems to me that EarthDog58 may be trying to stick it to you, but honestly — speaking as an anthropologist — I found nothing to complain about. What you’re describing isn’t rare and can easily be found all over the world.

    Anyway, good job, David.

    • Cheers, Don. I have been very luck these past few years to have experienced so much of the world. I like to write about it and share my experiences, but also it helps me remember it all. Not everyone gets to stand in the spotlight and not everyone experiences life as an outsider, to these are valuable moments that I’d hate to slip away.

      Since being here I’ve played a lot of football. I’m not a terrible player, but due to illness I had gone about eight years without being able to play, and so I’m not as sharp as I once was. The thing is, every team in the city wants their token whitey. This is partly due to the idea that all white people are good at football, and partly just for the same reason that business hire us. When I’m on the pitch, every player in the team will just look to pass to me, which gets really embarrassing after a while. Then after the game I’m paraded around because no other team has a white guy. Not that I’m complaining necessarily, but sometimes it gets a bit uncomfortable.

      Anyway, life is fascinating. You have to cherish these experiences and record them. Never forget.

      As for EarthDog58… He’s welcome to come back and elaborate if he has something worthwhile to say. Which I doubt.

  9. I’m so glad you’re accumulating bizarre experiences. It makes all of your work so entertaining, you little white monkey, you! But wait … you didn’t go on the game show?

  10. Joe Daly says:

    You’ve made me ruefully reconsider my choice to move to Sweden, where I not only didn’t make money, but where I ultimately spent the last of my modest savings.

    And here I could have gone to China and become a honky toastmaster.

    Typically fun, offbeat stuff, David. Well done.

    • Honky toastmaster. That’s going on my next set of business cards. Of which I already have thousands. It is Asia, after all.

      I didn’t think it was possible to regret going to Sweden. It always looks so… busty on TV.

      I think you’d also enjoy the music here. There are some decent rock bands doing the rounds. Not that I know any of their names, of course. But there are a lot of gigs around town.

  11. Simone says:

    David I have no idea how these things happen to you but I really appreciate you entertaining us with your tales. They truly are wierd and wonderful .

    A colleague of mine is looking at travelling to the East next year and I’ve given him the link to a few of your stories. He’s flabbergasted!

    Thank you for sharing. I look forward to buying and reading your autobiography one day.

    • Thanks, Simone. I’m just happy to share these stories. Hopefully I haven’t scared your friend off. This is my favourite part of the world and I have no regrets about coming out here, no matter how many crazy things happen.

  12. Jeffro says:

    I need to tell my former Irish roommate, Kel, that he jipped himself in China when he went there abroad one summer. He came back to Charlottesville a rickshaw driver and nothing of any value, save for a bootleg copy of “Thank You for Smoking.” Little did he know he could have been the CEO of Baby Gap.

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