Stuff White Expats Like

MrB and I both are fans of a recent Internet phenomenon, Stuff White People Like. I strongly encourage you to go and experience the site for yourself, if you’ve not done so already, as I think it’s one of the best satirical efforts I’ve seen in many a year.

Briefly – and you can take this as a spoiler alert if you haven’t yet checked out the site – SWPL is a list of objects/ideas/beliefs that gain the wholehearted approval of a very particular sort of person, i.e. a White person. But we’re not talking about the kind of White person who lives in the American heartland and who hunts assorted birds and quadrupeds for fun. No, the true White person is hip, happening and now, and is a denizen of a North American coastal city or college town. Note also that being a White person is not entirely limited to skin color; it's a state of mind.

The author of the site, Christian Lander, wrote incognito for a while, but his work attracted so much interest that he had to come out and own up. He got some nice interviews (and also here, if you'd like to hear Lander speak) and a book deal out of it, so no worries there.

Lander’s forte is not really his writing style or wit; he’s good but not great. His genius lies in his power of observation and his cunning in selecting his items. His title for the site is also a masterstroke; it's catchy and provocative, and it adds that memorable little frisson.  

In that youtube interview I linked above, Lander also very astutely identifies the salient factor that drives White people and their lifestyle choices: status. The clothes they wear, the people they associate with, the food they eat, the places they go, the beliefs they hold – it’s all about getting one-up on their social inferiors. But those inferiors not people from other races: they are instead the wrong kind of White people – i.e. the ones who listen to country music and vote Republican.

Lander’s list is so wide-ranging that most of us can find some items that fit us, and some that don’t. He’s cutting, but never truly cruel. Again, if you’re not familiar with the site, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

It’s in the spirit of SWPL (and don't think I'm being original; there are many, many spin-offs, such as Stuff Asian People Like, for example) that I submit to you my own little list. As you read it, please keep in mind that I’m attempting satire here, too – I know I’m being frequently unfair, and that no one really is quite like the straw man I’m sketching out here! Oh, and note that wherever relevant I’ve linked back to items on Lander’s original list.

So here we go with some of the Stuff White Expats Like:

Living in a cool place. Hong Kong lacks a Manhatten or a Brooklyn, but living on Hong Kong Island's south side (but not Aberdeen!) is fine; Sai Kung is now chic; and funky old buildings in mid-levels with high ceilings are a good choice if you need to work in Central. Living on an island is also acceptably White, especially Lamma or Lantau. All of these places (except mid-levels) are good since you can live by the water. One proviso: living in Discovery Bay is okay for a White person, but you must arm yourself by preparing a set speech defending your lifestyle choice. Here’s what you say: DB is 1) really diverse; 2) it’s environmentally sensitive since there are no cars; and 3) riding the ferry into town is cool. Living in Kowloon is out. Living in a New Town is also embarrassing, because most White expats won’t even know where your home is, or how one might travel there. The new towns that start with ‘T’ are especially bad. Shatin might just barely be okay.

Travel. Trips to Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and India are all good; these developing countries pose the significant travel challenges that White people simply adore overcoming. Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are just okay – you don’t need to avoid mentioning trips to them – but as an expat they are too easily-reached and comfortable to carry any serious White cachet. Japan poses an especially tricky question. For White people in North America, Japan is cool. It can be here, too, but since it’s a convenient and common destination from Hong Kong, it loses a lot of White expat status points. You can recapture them by bemoaning the number of tourists visiting Japan these days, then describing the painstaking steps you take to ensure you experience the real Japan.

Eating at many diverse ethnic restaurants. Hong Kong has loads of great restaurants, so it’s easy to find cool White expat favorites. The original SWPL singles out sushi and Asian fusion as the premier White cuisines, but in Hong Kong both are rather quotidian, so you must do better than this if you want to score status points. One caution: liking Chinese food is not at all necessary to being a White expat, and may in fact be harmful. Szechuan food is okay. But Cantonese, Shanghainese, Beijing and other ‘mainstream’ Chinese cuisines can be dismissed as being ‘greasy’, or as including too many icky or immoral ingredients (e.g. shark’s fin), or simply for being served in déclassé places like fast food shops, cha chaan tengs and restaurants in public housing estate shopping malls. If you want to avoid the tedious burden of chasing down ‘authentic’ Chinese food in its world capital, it’s better simply to fall back on your vegetarianism/passion for animal rights/food allergies and special dietary requirements, and skip the whole scene.

Talking about your maid. This is unexpected, since White people in general should be embarrassed at the very fact of having a servant(s). But since it’s ubiquitous in Hong Kong, your initial hesitance can soon be overcome as you quickly steer any maid-related conversation to a stirring, heartwarming account of how your maid’s life has been transformed since she’s gotten away from her abusive former employer, and now basks in the approbation and perks you shower on her in your Acknowledgement of her Full Humanity and her Equality with You.

Promising to learn a new language. This item seems to be perfect for a White expat in Hong Kong, but you have to be smart. If you make the obvious promise, i.e. to learn the language of your new home, you’re setting yourself up for all kinds of trouble, since it’ll sooner or later be obvious whether you’ve really learned any – or not. It’s therefore much better to avoid promising to learn Cantonese, since it’s not really necessary, it’s notoriously difficult, and it just sounds uncool. Mandarin used to be a safe bet, especially since so few people in Hong Kong actually used it, but that is changing: it would be social death for a White expat to have his lack of actual Mandarin learning exposed at a dinner party when a genuine Mandarin speaker tried to talk to him. The safe choice, therefore, is to promise to pick up a language from an exotic and preferably downtrodden Asian country. Khmer, Urdu and Tibetan are all excellent options.

There's lots more where that came from, but I'd better stop. Readers, what other Stuff do White Expats Like?


great article - ouch

They like their kids to 'take mandarin' so they can sing happy birthday in chinese at birthday parties.  But not to take it too seriously.

They like to moan and bitch about pollution as if it is someone else's problem all the while they have their aircon's on full blast and the driver chauffers them and their kids around town.

They like to have dogs, lots of them and big ones, but its the maids who have to 'walk' them and pick up the droppings.

They have at least 3 kids, a big minivan, and loud voices since they think no-one else speaks their language or english.

Stuff white expats like...  *

Stuff white expats like...

 * Buying water for home use (in bottles or delivered in a truck), especially if they have a baby or young child. Lord knows, their precious bundle of joy cannot grow up healthy on local water, unlike 99% of the rest of the children in HK.

 * Buying low-quality (not very fresh!!) over-priced produce at Expat oriented supermarkets. The soi-disant "Great" is the ultimate example.

* Regularly going to beach resorts outside HK on the holidays, but rarely visiting a Hong Kong beach, or if they do, complaining that they are "so crowded".

* Saying "bus stop" on the mini-bus instead of "Ba-see-jaaam", after more than 3 months in HK. How hard is it to learn to say those 3 syllables? 

* Buying frozen meat from Australia, UK, or USA rather than nice freshly slaughtered meat in the wet-market or a meat stall.

 *Drinking cold beverages, even in cold weather!

* Lane Crawford & Seibu more than Sincere or Wing On.


Living in New Towns

"Living in a New Town is also embarrassing, because most White expats won’t even know where your home is, or how one might travel there. The new towns that start with ‘T’ are especially bad."

No wonder no one ever visits me :-(

Christian Lander Feature

Christian is the man. Check out his feature at 5QuickQuestions: 

SWEL: Making things better

White Expats *love* to improve things.

If you work in the local office of an overseas company, you're probably one of the lucky ones who has experienced this first-hand. As the new WEx arrives to begin their 'international posting', they just can't wait to start making things better. Heck, not only is it something they love to do, it's what they're paid for!

In no time at all they'll be Stirring Things Up, and Cutting Away that Dead Wood. Yes, they truly bring a Breath of Fresh Air to your office.

Maybe you're wishing you could learn how to make things better? It is certainly possible to get closer to your WEx, you just need to know the right way to start.

First, resist those urges to tell WEx that you're still trying to clear up the mess left by last year's WEx, and the one before that. That would be a Bad Thing, suggesting that you're not a Team Player. ('Team Player' roughly translates to someone who listens carefully to the WEx, laughs at their jokes, and doesn't argue). In any case, remember that you only have to put up with this for three months. After that their full attention is given to getting their next international posting, and you can get back to running the business again.

Instead, strike during those first three months, while their burning desire to make things better is at full flame.

  • Month 1: "I really enjoyed reading your last report. Would it be ok to ask for your help in polishing my Business English?"
  • Month 2: "There's a problem we've been struggling with, and just can't seem to make any progress with. I wonder if you'd be willing to share some of your head-office experience with us?"
  • Month 3: "I'm really grateful for the way you've helped us all become better people. I know it's a lot to ask, but would you be willing to be my mentor?"

Follow these steps, and by #3 you'll practically be adopted. In no time at all you'll be making things better too!

Buses and more

SKMama--do HK WEx actually ride on minibuses?  I thought they only drove or took taxis . . . .

Some others:

*are shocked if you never shop at IFC or "hang out" in mid-levels

*write books/articles about "living in HK" and ignore 90% of the territory, focusing exclusively on the island


Extending the travel bit listed above--there are some places in China that are okay to visit--Tibet being the most obvious (because you can travel to a difficult place and feel like you're doing something for downtrodden people, LOL).  Must go to Beijing "to say you've been there" but the rest of the country is okay to ignore--after all, there are so many tourists there, now, who would want to go and be like THEM?  (and there could be a whole 'nother list of WEx in PRC, but that's for another place/time.)


I have to laugh at vegetarianism being mentioned again and again.  I was raised  vegetarian by parents who were raised vegetarian (religious thing), so we were veg before it was "in" to be veg.  I tend to forget that nowadays it's a trendy thing to do, LOL.  But, the point is well-made--sometimes it is difficult to eat out if you're veg (ever try to find veg dim sum outside of a veg restaurant?)--but on the street, it's usually pretty easy to find something.  The "fancier" the place, the harder it is to find veg food, in my experience.

Good fun list!


More Whiteness

The comments/additions to the list so far are excellent.

Gweipo, Mandarin for kids is just spot-on. First, it fulfills two key criteria that make White propagation a respectable possibility: gifted children and multilingual children. Second, your specification of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ places said offspring’s performance at (most likely) a party at which other White people will look on with great longing, wishing their kids could do what yours do, and hence that they could attain the commanding heights of status you’ve conquered so effortlessly!

SKMama, I agree about the minibuses: it is acceptable for White expats to take them, because they are slightly novel (and therefore potentially Authentic); they are a good source of colorful stories to tell friends back home; and they are often provided free or at nominal cost right at the door of the nice developments White expats live in.

MrB has tapped into a rich, deep vein of Whiteness. ‘Making things better’ is a succinct phrase to capture it, but it certainly extends well beyond the workplace, into all sorts of arenas. I may have more items on this to come . . . .

Mom2twoboys, yes, definitely on Tibet. The whole food issue is actually very complex and rich. There are so many converging and diverging factors at play here for the White expat. Yes, vegetarianism is unimpeachable, but then you run into the whole ‘where do I get my fruits and vegetables from?’ The basic reaction, as SKMama has noted, is to revert quickly to ‘safe’ supermarkets that sell stuff thats clearly labeled as ‘organic’ ‘free-range’ ‘artisanal’, ad infinitum. But the problem is that all this stuff is imported from great distances. This just mutilates the White belief that ‘local is best’, i.e. since it reduces shipping and hence the carbon footprint, and since it’s de facto more authentic. But ‘local’ in Hong Kong mostly means ‘from China’, which brings up all those horrible thoughts of chemicals, nasty farming/husbandry methods, incorrect fishing protocols, etc. In practice, obviously, ‘labels’ wins out over ‘local’, or otherwise Great could never afford to maintain its produce section!

Actually, we had quite a discussion on batgung on just this issue a couple of years ago.

SWEL: Sporting Events

A friend works in a company that has a continuous stream of WEx's visiting on one- and two-year contracts. In his experience, every WEx will atttend one or both of the following events during their first year in Hong Kong:

The Dragon Boat Race

Younger WEx's find the opportunity to join a Dragon Boat team near to irresitible. There are a couple of different routes to take. The standard route is to join a mixed team organised by employees of a WEx-run company. This has great merit in itself, being a co-ed sport, and offering ample opportunities to wear the latest outdoor performance clothes.

But every WEx secretly dreams of being the only white person in the local fisehrmen's dragon boat team. Oh, the authenticity!

The Rugby Sevens

WEx can join crowds of fellow shorts-wearers watch rugby, while being served beer by Asian girls. For three glorious days! Does life get any better than this?

As an interested observer, this is your best chance to see all the different WEx sub-species gathered together:

The fresh-off-the plane WEx will be there. The chance to attend the Sevens may even be one of the reasons he accepted the posting to Hong Kong.

But you'll also see the older WEx. For while it soon becomes clear that Dragon Boating is hard work, all the pre-match training for the Sevens can be done in the comfort of the nearest bar. This allows the WEx to continue developing their 'match-ready' physique well into their twilight years.

It also means the Sevens attracts large contingents of the ex-WEx, and wannabe-WEx, who tend to be older gentlemen. Ex-WEx once had an 18-month posting to Hong Kong, and has spent the last 20 years back home regaling long-suffering friends with tales of their time 'out East'. Their wife has finally given in to the years of pleading, and Ex-WEx has been allowed to visit the Sevens and relive a little of the magic.

Wannabe-WEx is a true friend of ex-WEx, the one who never tires of hearing those exotic overseas tales. He arrives with the secret hope that he'll go home with a tale or two of his own to tell.

If you hear a white person mention the Sevens, Mr Lander gives some excellent advice on how you should to handle it:

If you have determined that the white person you are talking to prefers rugby over soccer, it is strongly advised that you say: “you know, American Football players might be bigger, but rugby players are so much tougher.”

White travel

This article from the always provocative online journal Spiked recounts one British travel agency's attempts to organize 'chav-free' trips, i.e. Nice White Holidays that insulate the proper sort of traveler from the worst sorts of tourists. It's a priceless illustration of White attitudes to travel in general.

Servants/Maids/Helpers/Oh my god, she's like me best friend(s)

My family visited from England (or "the UK", as a true expat would say) and asked me how I could handle having another person living in our flat. I told them I found it a bit difficult for about 30 minutes.

Twelve years later ...... 

White tattoos

The original Stuff White People Like has a highly relevant new item today: tattoos. Christian Lander spends part of the entry discussing White People getting tattoos of Chinese or Japanese characters. His conclusion: it used to be White, but it’s not any longer, because the Wrong Kind of White People have caught on to the practice:

The Chinese or Japanese character is an interesting case study about the dangers of getting a tattoo with a personal meaning. You see, about fifteen years ago these were considered to be acceptable. Then the wrong kind of white people started getting sentences like “trust no one” or words like “beauty,” “truth,” or “endurance.”  To make a more modern analogy, it would be like The Arcade Fire being featured on a Jock Jams CD. [BTW, this analogy means absolutely nothing to me, but I’m sure it’s highly illustrative if you’re White—Ed.]

White people learned their lesson.

Lander also notes, however, that getting an intentionally stupid Asian characters-tattoo still can be properly White:

An ironic/funny tat can come in many forms: a piece of bacon, old Nintendo characters, mustaches on the inside of their finger, or Asian Characters that say something funny and self-aware like “dim sum,” “chicken fried rice,” or I can’t read Chinese.”

This illustrates the White mindset beautifully. It’s not important, you see, what Chinese or Japanese people think when they see the prominent evidence of your tattooed idiocy. Rather, it’s the impression you can create when other White People ask you what your tattoo means. If you tell a White Person that your tattoo says ‘I can’t read Chinese’ and he gives you a blank, bemused stare, you know he’s the Wrong Kind of White Person. The Right Kind will ‘get’ the irony.

Goodness, but it’s exhausting being White.

This is a great website dedicated to this exact topic - misuse and ignorance in getting Chinese/Japanese characters tattooed on your body. Some of it is very funny.

 Hanzi Smatter

hanzi smatter

Thanks much for that, Phil -- it's a scream. I noted immediately the person who had the 'Sesame Chicken' tattoo. I wonder if that one is meant to be ironic . . . ?

some more

This is a great thread. Ok, some more STWEL:

Regarding Kowloon as if it is the depths of a jungle

Being a member of a club, prefferably the Rugby club, where one can see HK but not have to be there as such. Being surrounded by other WEx's is particularly important

Extolling to other WEx's how popular they are with Chinese workmates

Visiting far flung parts of the island if they have discount outlets



A little more

I live in the SK district (CWB).  I have some friends out here (WEx's) who are shocked that I don't spend any time in Central or know of XYZ little restaurant "oh, you know, just around the corner from the escalators."  Um, I've been on the escalators once.

 Gave the name of a guy who has done frames for some of my pictures to a friend--but he said, oh, I've heard there are better places in Central, so didn't bother to go to the guy in Kowloon ("the dark side").

 Clothing.  WEx will buy "authentic" Chinese clothes (qipao being the most obvious, though just about anything silk and garish will do) and wear them to show how authentic they are and how they're embracing the culture.  But when it comes to regular clothing, they must shop at H&M or M&S.  Take them shopping on the street?  Yeah, right.

Perhaps related--when they travel, they always bring home "authentic" clothing of the country they visited, even if everyone "really" wears t-shirts and blue jeans.  Or authentic souvenirs.  Or come home enthusing about how much they love durian.

My 9 y/o son must be a true white person.  He loves hats, and when we were in Qinghai last summer, he wanted a Tibetan hat (looks like a Chicago gangster hat to me).  When we bought it, all the Tibetans in the market were doing double-takes and laughing themselves silly.  But perhaps he doesn't understand the irony, just loves hats.


Falling from Whiteness

This article from Der Spiegel is great fun. It's by Jan Fleischhauer, one of their editors, who's discovered he's an 'accidental conservative'. This is not all that noteworthy, but the details in the article are relevant here -- Fleischhauer clearly grew up very, very White, and his fall from Whiteness is frequently hilarious:

I realized that I was relieved when my sons converted the puppet theater my father-in-law and I had built for them into a parking garage.

A hat tip to the indispensible Arts & Letters Daily for the link.