This is as much a story about shape-shifting fox spirits as it is about one of my experiences as a PoC (people of colour) person. [revised & updated: 16.09.2020]
I’ve been a corset-wearing Goth, a pagan witch in dark gypsy clothing, a girl dressed like a 1920s gentleman and a nerd in a Sailor Saturn costume. I’m also a mixed-race lesbian with a strange sense of humor. I should be used to having people stare at me. I might look human, but I have the soul of a fox spirit within me.
»Crossing multiple cultural boundaries, fox spirits signified outsiders who were usually perceived as dangerous yet desirable, and whose characteristics subverted dominant cultural norms yet remained indispensable for the practical needs of everyday life. They were therefore identified with a variety of marginal social groups, such as courtesans, concubines, young wives or daughters-in-law, spirit mediums, bandits, and immigrants, and brought to the fore socially suppressed voices, culturally repressed desires, and politically proscribed forces in Chinese society.«
Xiaofei Kang. The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China.
It’s summer 2018 and I intend to go grocery shopping with a 500€ banknote. For various reasons, it’s the only money I have at hand. Because no supermarket in my neighborhood takes these banknotes for small purchases or even bigger ones (I’ve tried it before), I’ll go to my regular bank for changing it into smaller banknotes. (I’ve done this before, too). So, I tell my wife, »I’ll be back within an hour« and leave the house with my mobile phone charging in the living room.
She’s not staring after me.
At the bank, the lady behind the counter runs the banknote through her machine. It stops halfway. She tries again. Again, the machine stops, refusing to take it. A third time, maybe also a fourth, I’m unsure as I start to get nervous, because there are a lot of people behind me and I’m holding up the line. The bank lady is sidestepping, motioning me to do the same. A colleague takes over her place.
People are starting to stare at me.
»The fox symbolizes not just the selfish side of individuality but the psychological separation from the protection of the group. […] Behaviour that was traditionally diagnosed as „fox possession“ included unusual eating habits, inappropriate use of language, inability to follow social norms, and […] newfound abilities in literacy.«
Karen A. Smyers. The Fox and the Jewel. Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship
The bank lady looks at the money, she looks at me.
Throughout my life, I had people question my heritage. I’ve been mistaken for Vietnamese, Mexican, Philippine, South-American and other. I’ll enlighten you, dear reader: I’m none of the aforementioned. I’m Thai-German-Chinese. I know what the bank lady is seeing in front of her: A young, small, tattooed woman with foreign features, clad completely in black with heavy black boots, a second-hand army rucksack on her back and silver rings on every finger.
Bank Lady: »Do you understand me? As you can see, the machine won’t accept your money. I need to see your ID.«
I know for sure, that the banknote is real. I’ve paid many times before with 500€ banknotes from the same stack*, even had them changed or put into my bank account at the same counter I’m standing right now, deeply embarrassed. I try to explain. Because I haven’t done anything wrong, the money is not fake, and me telling her this is no use, I hand her my ID.
Bank Lady, a short glance, then: »I’ll keep that and I’m calling the police now. I have to make sure that’s not forged money.«
In fact, the bank lady makes several calls. One to her boss to inform him of the situation, one to the shopping centre’s detective, to come keep an eye on me, one to another store who tries to find a similar 500€ banknote — because maybe, maybe the machine IS faulty and I might not be part of a forger ring — and one to the police.
People are still staring at me.
The search for another 500€ banknote is in vain. No shop has one. The store detective arrives and starts questioning me about the money.
Me: »I’m long overdue at home, my wife doesn’t know where I am, I don’t have a phone with me, I don’t know how long this will take, could I please call her to let her know…«
Store detective: »No, we’ll wait for the police.«
I want to vanish or at least faint. Instead I ask another question.
Store detective: »No, you can’t get your ID back, we’re keeping it for the police.«
New people are staring at me.
»The fox, as both an indigenous animal and a spirit being active in the daily life of north China, […] also took on various roles normally played by officials and the elite. As an alternative source of power at the disposal of different social groups, it could be invoked to either challenge or secure the local order.«
Xiaofei Kang, ibid.
After what seems like an eternity, the police arrives. The first question they ask is: »Do you understand German?«
Me, thinking: You confiscated my ID. If you’d care to look at it properly, there’s my place of birth and my nationality. Hint, it starts with G.
Then, my backpack is thoroughly searched.
Thank the Goddess I don’t carry herbal charms in my wallet anymore. Envision the conversation:
Police, asking: »What’s that?«
Me, saying: »Um, harmless kitchen herbs?«
Police, thinking: Right, who carries an unlabled strangely wrapped mini plastic bag of grinded up herbs with them? Let’s take these to the lab for testing. It smells funny like incense. Could be a new kind of drug.
Me, thinking: What’s worse, letting them think you’re a witch aka lunatic or a drug dealer?
A series of questions follows, similar to those I’ve answered before. Similar to before, my request for a phone is denied. »We’re going to the police station, there you can make a call.«
I don’t know where the station is and how much more time will be wasted until I can inform my wife.
Police before me, police behind me, we’re moving through hidden doors and the entrails of the shopping mall and out of a delivery entrance into a still bright evening.
Thankfully, there are no people staring at me.
Never before, in my 30+ years have I had trouble with the police. Now I’m sitting in the back seat of a police car and listen to the conversation in front of me. I’m staring out the window, hoping that no one stares back.
»Female foxes […] appeared at the two extremes of the Confucian moral spectrum, either as virtuous wives or as ghostly temptresses. They played mediating roles in family life, but their virtue or sexual potential challenged male authority, thus preventing them from gaining a permanent place either as a regular family member or as an object of piety in domestic shrines.«
Xiaofei Kang, ibid.
Let’s try a thought experiment:
Envision the same happening to my wife.
My wife, who is: white, German, of medium height, over 40 and looks her age. She sometimes wears strange clothes too, but has a doctorate and can prove it – but for now, imagine her in a nice trouser suit, all her tattoos covered up. Would the bank lady and the detectives treated her like they’ve treated me? Think about it.
»A species in which both males and females cross boundaries, but each in distinct ways that usually keep the boundary between male and female clear, has a different structural function than a single male border-crosser: these are the tricksters who provide a certain necessary element of chaos in a stable world rather than the single individual who remakes the world.«
Rania Huntington. Alien Kind. Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative.
Oh, the end of my story? Guess what, the 500€ banknote was NOT forged and the police let me go.
My resumé: However I’ll shape-shift, people will always stare at me. Though I play my role in Western society well, I’ll never be able to hide my fox tail.
* In case, dear reader, you’re wondering: No, I am not in the habit of carrying around 500€ banknotes. But in 2018 I had a couple of them, legally earned of course. Now, if you think about breaking-and-entering, that’s useless, as the 500€ banknotes are long gone from my home.