I think it is fair to say that the Daily Mail has an uneasy relationship with foreigners. Not very keen on them remaining in their own countries doing strange things, they are even less fond of the ones that decide to make Britain their home. Warnings about legions of poor migrants from various parts of the world planning to abuse Britain’s hospitality – ‘swamping’ our ‘over-generous’ benefits system and pride-of-the-world NHS in particular – are a staple of the Mail’s journalism.
However, it seems from an article that I read this week that they feel ambivalent even towards those foreigners who arrive in Britain for a very short time, bearing tons of cash that they plan to leave behind in exchange for luxury items. Especially, it seems, when those shoppers are of a particular ethnicity:
Caption reads: Oriental customers queue outside Selfridges
The accompanying article features brief interviews with (I imagine) fairly atypical consumers – the diplomat’s wife with £10,000 to spend and a young Thai student with a generous allowance from home – in order to ramp up the outrage. What sensible person could contemplate spending thousands on handbags? Shouldn’t students be starving in attics somewhere rather than shopping on Bond Street? run the subtexts. Yet it is in the caption to the photograph that the framing of the story really becomes clear, with the use of the term ‘Oriental’ to describe a group of people waiting to get into Selfridges department store.
The debate over the use of that word to describe people is neatly summed up in this NYU Livewire article, and while you could expect the Daily Mail to be resolute in ignoring what it will no doubt consider ‘political correctness gone mad’, even a brief glance at the Oxford English Dictionary would have told their reporter that:
it tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic.
When really, of course, what is on display here is nothing of the sort. Stronger currencies in Asia mean that London is a very attractive shopping destination for a large proportion of those consumers usually so dear to the Mail’s heart: the suburban middle-classes. The people in the Mail’s photograph are behaving no differently than the denizens of Surrey and Hampshire did, when hopping over to New York for a weekend on Fifth Avenue, back in the days a decade or so ago when the pound had similar strength.
Rather than pointing out supposed differences, what the Mail’s story shows is that shopping is an international hobby and the love of a bargain is universal. A more perceptive article would perhaps have dwelled on the irony of Chinese consumers flying miles to spend thousands on supposedly ‘British’ items their compatriots were paid pennies to stitch together or the emptiness of this acquisitive culture. Even the diplomat’s wife, with her five-figure sum to spend, was enjoying saving hundreds in the sales. Thriftiness (of a sort), a love of Britain’s quaint customs (queuing) and tills ringing across London. I would have thought the right-wingers at the Mail would find something in that to smile about, instead of such mean-spirited carping about this particular group of visitors.