If you are a minority, you face the burden of representing entire group in public eye

MANY local expatriates will be happy with the extension of operating hours on some Metro lines to midnight, which started today. But is this just another chance for drunken laowai to lose face for all of us?

The short answer is: probably. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a society where Westerners are a minority group, and where social media is rampant in all aspects of life. All it takes is for one laowai, or one group of laowai, to act up in public, and then we are all called into question when pictures and video end up going viral.

And the easiest way for any individual or small group to rise to infamy for acting badly is when said behavior conforms to already held stereotypes of the group in question. Unfortunately — whether it’s accurate or not — Westerners are known for their penchant for alcohol and a good time.

That’s why, when a group of drunk laowai decided last year to continue their party on the Shanghai Metro, they became the objects of national scorn, and ultimately made us all look bad.

The infamous incident happened last May when a group of foreign exchange students got on Line 6, already a little worse for wear. They cracked open their drinks and began to sing and talk loudly. Inevitably, photos and video showing them swinging from the overhead beams and giving each other wedgies went viral.

Chinese netizens were less than happy, some saying that this group had effectively lost face for all Westerners.

It reminded me of a media theory from my undergraduate days: the burden of representation.

It goes something like this: If you’re part of a minority group — blonde women, white people in China, Chinese people in the West, gays and lesbians anywhere, motorcycle riders, politicians, and so on — you bear the burden to represent that entire group whenever you pop up in the media, based on commonly held stereotypes about said group.

Popularly held beliefs

When a blonde woman appears on the news and doesn’t know the name of the current president, she confirms for all that blonde women are stupid (they’re not).

When a gay man appears on a reality TV show teaching straight men how to decorate their homes, the population is reminded that all gay men are fabulous (they’re not). When a Chinese mainland mother helps her son urinate on a busy Hong Kong street, it confirms for all Hong Kong residents that mainlanders are less polite (they’re not).

And when drunken laowai cause havoc on public transport and pictures and video end up online and in the news, this confirms that all foreigners in China are lazy party animals with no regard for local culture.

Another popularly held belief in China is that Westerners living here have an easier time, based on the idea that we get away with behavior which Chinese would be scorned or punished for (whether this is true or not is another debate).

A group of foreigners got on Line 11 earlier this month and cracked out a picnic table, before starting to have a feast on board, shocking many fellow passengers.

Because of the burden of representation, this confirmed many Chinese people’s beliefs that laowai get special treatment here and aren’t punished for being rude and inconsiderate. It also made us look uncouth in the eyes of many Chinese netizens.

What the burden of representation says, in effect, is that if you’re a minority, you bear the burden of representing that entire group whenever and however you may end up in the public eye.

And it is a hell of a burden.

It’s not fair, but we are all guilty of judging whole groups by the actions of a mere few. After all, we’re only human. That’s why it’s important to think carefully about popularly held stereotypes in your local context and actively try to counter them whenever you have the chance.

If you’re a politician, don’t flash your possessions in public. If you’re a motorcyclist, try to drive in a polite way. If you’re from New Zealand, don’t remind everyone that our milk is the best.

And if you’re a drunk laowai taking advantage of the later Metro hours on some lines, don’t swing from the beams like a crazy monkey.

I thank you on behalf of all Westerners living in China.