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.
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.”
“You mean, ‘Thank you, father.’”
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
25 yrs experience of whiteness
Teacher, farmer, priest, editor, salesman, author, driver, cleaner, bookstore manager, rock star, babysitter, actor.
Good public speaker (if audience doesn’t speak English). Fluent Konglish and Chinglish.