Clarissa Tan

Britain has many major problems – racism isn’t one of them

It has less prejudice than the countries where I’ve lived before – and more people taking offence

[Photo by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

I am a banana. In Singapore, where I used to live, this needs no explanation — it means I’m yellow on the outside but white on the inside, someone who looks ethnically Chinese but whose way of thinking is ‘western’. There are bananas all over Asia, and I daresay the world. We are better versed in Shakespeare than Confucius, our Mandarin is appalling, and we often have pretentious Anglo or American accents.

Then there are people who are ‘ching-chong’, a reference to anyone who enjoys the kitschy bling of stereotypically Chinese things, sans irony — they like paving their entire garden with cement, for example, or driving a huge Mercedes, or placing two garish stone lions on either side of a wrought-iron gate.

In Asia, there are lots of labels like these, based along racial lines. Most trenchant of all, an entire kaleidoscope of words exist to refer to foreigners, more often than not whites: farang in Thailand, gaijin in Japan, mat salleh in Malaysia, gweilo in Hong Kong. In the latter, ‘gwei’ means ‘ghost’ — taken literally, it means a white person is not fully human. Indeed, in many Chinese dialects, the idiomatic term for any foreigner, be they Indian or Ivorian or Irish, contains the ghostly ‘gwei’; only ethnic Chinese are constantly referred to as ‘rén’, which means ‘person’. In other words, only the Chinese really exist as full-blooded people.

Now, these terms have been used for so long and so broadly that often they’re not employed as racial epithets — though sometimes they are. But I wish they weren’t in circulation at all, because they make us view people through the narrow lens of ethnicity.

And where’s the outrage? No high-level, activist campaign exists in any Asian country to eradicate such racially charged language. Nobody feels strongly enough to object, least of all white people.

In Britain though, where I now live, the opposite seems to be true.

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