It was a touching scene. A young American male sat outside of a McDonalds in Nanjing, sharing a meal with a homeless lady. He had purchased two orders of French fries and poured water into her water bottle.
A passerby snapped photos and uploaded them onto a Chinese social working site. Online, people praised the young man — whose name is Jason Loose — and gave him the nickname "Brother Fries". This wasn't the only recent act of laowai (foreign) kindness: earlier this month, a Brazilian man got beat up as he attempted to stop a robbery.
And just as the Chinese internet dubbed both heroes, a 25 year-old British man was caught allegedly molesting multiple women and raping one. An altercation broke out and the 25-year was beaten senseless. Online, forums erupted with some stating how awful foreigners were.
In much of Asia, many people's interaction with foreigners is somewhat limited. Maybe they've studied English. Maybe they've met foreigners in bars. But simple maths says that the vast majority of the population will not have any sort of meaningful interaction, such as being neighbours, work colleagues or even friends.
This isn't due to racism in countries like, say, China, South Korea, or Japan. Like I said, it's simple math: the number of foreigners is comparatively smaller, so not everyone has the opportunity to pursue a deeper interaction. Thus, much of people's perception of foreigners is based entirely on things they read online or popular culture they absorb. This isn't unique to Asia. This is, however, also why foreigners (in Japan, at least) are often peppered with possibly irksome questions and comments. People have a perception, which informs the things they ask and the things they think.
After I grabbed his neck and saw he's a laowai, I felt more obligated to save the girl."
The recent footage of 25 year-old British man, who is in China on a tourist visa, underscored everything awful imaginable. Besides the footage of the inebriated man appearing to rape a woman near Beijing's Xuanwumen Station (footage that has been analyzed as if it were Blow-Up), social networking sites photos of that same individual. It's difficult to make out what's going on in the pictures, but the uploader claimed a bald foreigner was thrusting his erection towards women. The photos were the British man earlier that evening, before the incident that was captured on video.
In the video (viewable here, viewer discrention recommended), the woman said she does not know the man. Her underwear was exposed. The man who first appeared in the video was a 24 year-old security guard from a nearby building. "After I grabbed his neck and saw he's a laowai, I felt more obligated to save the girl," he told the Global Times. Does that mean he'd be less obligated if the accused rapist was Chinese?
"Pictures showing a foreigner helping a Chinese might help raise public awareness about doing good deeds."
The beatdown the British man was filmed and uploaded online with the title: "Laowai, We're Going To Kick Your arse Out of China". The man, who speaks no Chinese and who is on a tourist visa, is currently in police custody. Chinese legal experts think he'll serve about two weeks in detention and then be deported.
The whole incident clashed with the foreigners-sure-are-nice attitude that the media played up, and it'll serve to reinforce any unsavory stereotypes people in China have. Many people, no doubt, are able to make the distinction between the individual and the group, but not everyone.
What's more, making divisions, such as foreign or native, cannot be helped. This is a foreign man in China. That is no mistake. However, these same distinctions cause people to lose sight of the individual. Instead of thinking that a foreign sharing his food with a homeless lady means all foreigners are nice, it's more accurate to note that the act is revealing about this particular individual. The same holds true for the British man. What's lost in this is the big sweeping brushstrokes that the word "foreigner" leaves out. Even if it's being used in a neutral context, it separates "us" and "them". This is underscored in Loose's reaction to his generosity.
"I shall never gain such wide attention in the U.S. by doing so," Loose wrote online about his French fry sharing. "One reason could be I am not a 'laowai' (foreigner) at home. Another is this kind of thing is quite common in America."
But this goes even further. Li Yonggang, a professor who teaches Internet phenomenon at Nanjing University, told the Global Times, "Pictures showing a foreigner helping a Chinese might help raise public awareness about doing good deeds." By that logic, video of a foreigner doing awful things might help public awareness about doing evil deeds. But the sticking point is whether these individuals are behaving this way because it's their personality — whether that is good or bad — or because they are in another country and behaving in a manner that they never would at home — whether that's doing good deals or truly deplorable ones.