07/27/2012 07:21 am ET | Updated Sep 26, 2012

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Being In China

A devastatingly beautiful young Chinese woman with dark eyes, black shoulder length hair and strong, shapely legs is smiling at me. I smile back.

It's a phenomenon I've encountered on many occasions over the past few months, mainly from young, urban women with a sense of fashion. And while, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I've been "checked out" by men and women in several different countries I've traveled to, there seems to me something different about the Chinese woman's gaze: a gaze that suggests she is sizing up my race and net worth, as well as my physicality, before she decides whether or not I might be worth her time. (Or perhaps I am projecting: being an impoverished student, I too take a potential partner's financial situation into consideration.)

Much to the annoyance of my current travel partner, who doubles as both girlfriend and translator with equal parts grace and patience, I am, quite simply, a "hit" among Chinese women. However, it must be noted that I am far from alone in my popularity. Wherever one travels in this country, one sees white men of every age, size and shape with disproportionately attractive Chinese women on their arms, each party wearing a smile that suggests that they are the one getting the better end of the deal.

China is a nation informed by archaic, and often perplexing, notions regarding race. A teeth cleansing product with a name that translates as "Black Man Toothpaste" -- complete with a smiling blackface caricature on the package -- is ubiquitous in Chinese shops. A Haitian acquaintance with whom I am eating dinner is interrupted mid-bite to take a photo with the restaurant's owner. Perhaps the restaurant has never served a black customer before, perhaps it has. Regardless, why does the occasion warrant a photograph? Requests for an explanation -- from myself, and the other snubbed Caucasians in attendance -- go unanswered by the staff.

The Mandarin phrase "lao-wei" is shorthand for "foreigner," and any traveler in the country with a Western appearance has surely heard the phrase uttered in their direction many times. The implication of "lao-wei" is slightly more loaded than simply pointing out an individual of foreign descent, however; a Western equivalent might be yelling "Hey! Look at the Chinaman!" in the middle of Times Square.

I should add that it is not only women who seem to be enamored with my foreign disposition. Immediately upon discovery on a dancefloor at a posh nightclub, I receive a (welcome) invitation for drinks from a middle-aged man who speaks no English. He then drags me to his table, and proceeds to pay for his entire party to share a drink with me. Several upturned glasses later, and I wonder: would the same courtesy be extended to my Haitian friend? I'm not sure.

Regardless of, or perhaps partially as a result of, twisted racial dynamics in the country, it is not hard for white men to make fast friends. Reports conflict as to why white men are so sought-after among Chinese women. Anecdotes among travelers and Chinese alike reveal that it is as much about social status as it is about imagined financial stability. The Chinese fear tans; umbrellas are rampant in the streets on sunny days. Skin-whitening creams, while not as popular as in India, are a major seller. Film and television actors are often bleach white in appearance. Whiteness, as a commodity, sells. So too do white men. Thus, is it simply a question of desirable pigment?

If it is not, and my long-suffering Birkenstocks and MacBook computer reveal to the Chinese eye untold affluence, my new friend's hopes will soon be dashed: little does she know the pitiful state of my bank balance, and the vortex of student debt whirling deep therein. She passes by my table and I return to my work, avoiding an encounter that likely would have been both mutually disappointing and, worse still, predictable.