Keeping Out the Foreigners

~Adeline Yen Mah

In 1949, many Shanghai entrepreneurs fled south to Hong Kong to escape the Communists. Like the scholar Li Si years earlier, my father also left his home and travelled to a distant place in search of better opportunities and a fresh start. My siblings and I did not realize it then, but my father’s mover destined us to become part of the 55 million Chinese living and working outside of China.

At the age of fourteen, I won an international writing competition, which convinced my father to send me from Hong Kong to London for higher education. Three years later, while waiting for medical school to commence, I applied for a summer accounting job advertised in the evening newspaper. Over the phone, the manager sounded eager to hire me. He gave me directions to his firm, and asked if I was ready to start work that day. As soon as he saw my Chinese face, however, his attitude changed. Avoiding my eyes, he told me that the position had just been filled. He was a nice man because I could hear the embarrassment in his voice as he repeated the lie. One part of him knew that I would be a good worker and was reluctant to let me go. Nevertheless, he sent me away.

Throughout the long period of my training at medical school in London, I knew in my heart that if I were to remain in England after graduation, I would never be given the same opportunities as my British classmates. In order to secure a decent career, I realized I would have to go elsewhere. Because of my dismal childhood, the feeling of being discriminated against was only too familiar. I had decided long ago that life was unfair and that each person needs to find her own way of overcoming adversity. Besides, the bias I was encountering in Britain was far less than the blatant prejudice I had endured for so many years in my own home.

After graduating from medical school, I went back to Hong Kong. To my shock and dismay, I came across more prejudice. My colleagues resented me because I was not Cantonese and was a graduate of English, rather than Hong Kong, medical school. The fact that we were all Chinese simply meant that they could be more open in their intolerance. They nicknamed me “imported goods” and told me to m face that I was a foreigner. No matter how hard I tried to please, I remained an outsider.

My last refuge was America. Even before I set foot on American soil, I was already being helped by a total stranger. The medical secretary of the Philadelphia hospital where I had applied for a job turned out to be kinder to me than my own parents. As soon as I wrote to her, she advanced me the airfare from Hong Kong to New York against my future earnings, whereas my millionaire father and stepmother simply turned down my request for a loan. In America, I found that my gender and ethnic origin were still a hindrance, but the country was large and the people were generous. However, despite these favorable considerations, I did come across one particularly ugly instance of discrimination.

In the 1970s, there were a few board-qualified and fully trained physicians specializing in anesthesia. As such, my services were in demand. A Catholic order that owned a large and prestigious private hospital in Los Angeles encouraged me to apply for a position in obstetric anesthesia. In due course, I was interviewed. As soon as I sat down in front of the white, male and arrogant head of department, that familiar childhood feeling of “being picked on” came flooding back.

“Despite what you have been told by the nuns who own this hospital,” he began, “our medical group is not looking for more anesthesiologists.”

Taken aback, I said somewhat lamely, trying to please the godlike figure in front of me, “I thought I might be given a chance to do locums and fill-ins during sick leaves and vacations.”

“Look!” he replied icily, “No one in our group ever gets sick or takes a vacation. Do you understand?”

I stared back at him in silence and he added, “Have I made myself perfectly clear?”

I nodded a prepared to leave. In those days anesthesia jobs were plentiful. His rejection did not devastate me because I knew that I would be able to find a position elsewhere. As I bade him goodbye, however, I was seized by a sudden impulse. With my hand on the doorknob, I turned to him and asked, “Have you ever heard of the Chinese proverb “binding your feet to prevent you own progress”?

That proverb guo zu bu qian was a phrase first used by the King of Qin’s minister, Li Si, in the third century BC. Like the brain drain into the United States today, a similar flow of talent was happening 2200 years ago. Qin was the richest state of that era and talented scholars from all the other states flocked there to seek employment. Their success cause such resentment among Qin’s native population that they eventually persuaded the King to expel all non-Qin scholar officials. Reluctant to relinquish his post, Li Si wrote a letter to the King of Qin protesting against his deportation. He complained that Qin’s new exclusionary policy was akin to “binding your feet to prevent your own progress”.

My grandfather was the one who first told me the story behind the proverb guo zu bu qian. With hindsight, I have come to realize that resentment of foreigners is not peculiar to Qin, London, Hong Kong or Los Angeles, but is universal. Locals everywhere wish to preserve their own turf and reserve the best jobs for themselves and their children.

In the 1960s, the USA had a special category of visa for visiting scholars called an exchange visa. At te conclusion of their work contract, foreigners who entered America on this type of visa were obliged to leave America for at least two years before re-entry. One of the unstated purposes of this type of special visa may have been to prevent foreigners from competing with locals for permanent positions at prestigious universities and other desirable institutions.

In Hong Kong today, although most of the domestic jobs are filled by alien maids and butlers, there is a movement pending to prevent foreigners from working as chauffeurs. Drivers traditionally receive higher wages than domestic workers and the locals wish to keep the more lucrative jobs for themselves. Throughout history, despite the fact that particular incidents may appear to differ in specific details, the same human impulses seem to repeat themselves over and over again.

Li Si correctly foresaw long ago that exclusionary policies to keep out foreigners would be counterproductive. He likened the practice to guo zu bu qian.

“In the long run,” Li Si predicted, “your ordinance will harm your own people and benefit your enemies. It is definitely not the way toward stability and safety for your state.”

~fromA Thousand Pieces of Gold”

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5 Responses to Keeping Out the Foreigners

  1. Ernie says:

    Nope. You're staying up there for time immemorial. Point taken about the bitter bananas. They don't know from eating bitterness. Beijing Subway at 6:30. That's some bitterness.

  2. Ernie says:

    Curses! Exposed by the Mandarin-speaking laowai. Thought the propaganda poster would lure some readers, though. She's 72 and she wrote the article; see top.

  3. Door Knob says:

    the Chinese history has always fascinated me..!!

  4. Ernie says:

    B plus on your mini book report. Time for recess.

  5. Partiality and prejudices is present everywhere even in the present era even though most of us are not aware of it. This article is about the writer’s bad experiences due to the prejudices even inside her home town Hong-Kong. When she was a child she and her family moved to Hong-Kong from China to escape from the communist. Later as she got a scholarship she went to England to study medicine. She hasn’t got the part time job only because she is a Chinese. From that she understood that she would never be given the same opportunities as her classmates get. So she returned to her hometown. But she had to face prejudice from her home town itself even from her friends as they considered her as a foreigner because she is graduated from a British university. She became disappointed and went to America as her last hope. Even there too she had faced few prejudice incidents because of her ethnicity. In this article she also wrote about the story behind the Chinese proverb ‘guo zu bu qian’ which is also about an incident related with prejudices happened 2200 years ago.

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