“你是印度人还是巴基斯坦人？” translating to “are you Indian or Pakistani” is what I’d often be asked while I was in China. Despite studying at Peking University with plenty of other foreigners, I still stood out in China due to not looking like the typical 外国人 (foreigner) that is the one that Chinese people often associate with students from Europe or the U.S. being “white”. In China there is often a fixation with whiteness, with skin whitening products and attempts to stay out of the sun being quite common due in part to darkness being associated with manual labor and therefore poverty. So while many of my light skinned peers also stood out, they were revered but this in part kept them at arms length from the Chinese. Other peers, Asian-Americans were often themselves assumed to be Chinese or at least a 華裔 (Ethnically Chinese living abroad). But not I, I was a special case which made my experience all the more interesting.
Often when asked whether I was Chinese I’d instead reply that I was neither but was in fact Mexican. This would often be enough of an answer and avoided the rather complicated explanation of Geo-politics between Mexico and the U.S. and issues with immigration that has seen Latin American populations grow in recent years. In turn I was able to represent my culture and people by presenting some of the similarities that China and Mexico share, such as a love of music, art , culture and of course food.
Being in China was in particular good from a gastronomic point because I was finally able to enjoy spicy food. Though not always having the same taste as Mexican spicy, centuries of trade with the Spanish Empire had resulted in the adoption of chilies into the Chinese diet and even now chilies are an integral part of cuisines such as those of Sichuan and Chonqing. In Mexico too chilies are an integral part of food to the point where to not eat it can often lead to joking or making fun of someone for not being truly “Mexican”. The food of these two ancient cultures is deeply rooted in everything from family to history, life and death it represents your hometown and your generosity. As I’ve found out before, to respect and appreciate the food of another country is the best way to make lasting friendships and it is for this reason that I made a lot of friends both at Peking University and with other Chinese people that I would meet.
China and Mexico are very different and naturally so, after all they are on almost opposite sides of the globe, but they are not drastically different. At the base, the family is the main transmitter of customs and culture with both nations historically having large extended families; and yet despite these trends changing in both in recent years, family still plays an integral part. There is reverence for dead ancestors much in the way that Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead and a history of migration in each country in the hopes of providing a better life.
In part being foreign did not afford me the same attention as others but not being a light skinned 鬼佬 (“ghostly man” or sometimes translated as “foreign devil”) also made people open up more as they were not as intimidated. In talking about family, culture or simply being myself I hoped to have been able transmit that despite our differences, we’re also more alike than we’d think. Being asked if I was Indian or Pakistani was a rather ignorant question but it highlights the reality of most Chinese that are not exposed to people from Latin America and during my time in Beijing it was also an opportunity to have a sincere dialogue as well as share part of my culture.