Casual racism in China

Visitors to China are familiar with translation errors on English signs and menus.  “Carp,” for instance, is almost always spelled with a letter reversal, making for an unappetizing meal. But sometimes the mistake is more than an innocent slip-up:  Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her Toronto home with a ...

602411_070420_darlie_15.jpg
602411_070420_darlie_15.jpg

Visitors to China are familiar with translation errors on English signs and menus.  "Carp," for instance, is almost always spelled with a letter reversal, making for an unappetizing meal. But sometimes the mistake is more than an innocent slip-up: 

Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her Toronto home with a label that used a racial slur to describe the dark brown shade of the upholstery.

The situation was even more alarming for Moore because it was her 7-year-old daughter who pointed out "nigger brown" on the tag.

Visitors to China are familiar with translation errors on English signs and menus.  “Carp,” for instance, is almost always spelled with a letter reversal, making for an unappetizing meal. But sometimes the mistake is more than an innocent slip-up: 

Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her Toronto home with a label that used a racial slur to describe the dark brown shade of the upholstery.

The situation was even more alarming for Moore because it was her 7-year-old daughter who pointed out “nigger brown” on the tag.

No one is accusing the Chinese company that made the label of outright racism; they had been using old translation software that had been programmed with the term. The fact that such a phrase was ever seen as acceptable is not that surprising. Casual remarks and phrases that would seem horribly racist to an American pass without note in China.

Darlie toothpaste, for instance, is a popular brand whose Chinese name translates literally as “Black Man.” The image on the package is about as stereotypically invidious as they get. African-American visitors to China, meanwhile, still must incessantly explain that yes, they really are American, and no, they don’t all play basketball. Many very well educated Chinese will state matter-of-factly that they are afraid of black people, mostly likely because of the images that they are presented through American TV and movies.

Partly, the casual racism is a product of a society that has seen itself as racially homogenous for most of its history adjusting to the presence of other societies that are not. Partly, it’s a reflection of the past of the West itself—a reminder of the fact that openly expressed racism was acceptable here not too long ago. Our own terrible expressions still echo on the other side of the world.

While we’re on the delicate subject of race relations, check out today’s web exclusive by Korean-American journalist Soo Youn, writing from Seoul. She takes a look at how South Koreans are reacting to the Virginia Tech tragedy—and finds many lessons to be learned. Check it out.

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