If any of what I’m about to write doesn’t make sense, you can blame it on the fact that my brain and body think it’s already 4:30am tomorrow. I really can’t be held accountable if I’m not even in the present tense, right? Last week, my work took me 5000+ miles away from my new home in Berkeley, California to the Land of the Red Dragon – Shanghai, China, to be specific. After 15 hours of flying and one unexpected night in Beijing (Thanks, Delta!) I finally arrived at my destination (although my luggage did not – two points for Delta)! I was weary, jet-lagged, and headed right into a grueling workweek, so it’s taken me up until now to unpack all of the things I felt and saw while in China as a Black woman; which isn’t bad considering it will likely take me two more weeks to unpack my suitcase. In an effort to organize all the things still swirling around in my brain from being overseas, I would like to share with you Five Things I Learned While Being Black in China. And they go a little something like this:
- Everyone will stare at you. Openly. And there will be nothing you can do about it. I tried just about everything; ignoring them, turning my back, even staring back in annoyed defiance. But the fact of the matter is that many people living in China (especially if you visit the less populated or more residential areas) have never seen a Black person in real life before. Add natural hair into the equation, and you might as well be a unicorn prancing about the streets of Shanghai. The gawking is a natural reaction to seeing someone they’d never expect to encounter show up on their metaphorical doorstep.
- You’ll feel like a celebrity. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. If you love having all eyes on you as you walk around a department store, eat your lunch, or try to get to work, then you might enjoy the feeling of being hounded by the paparazzi. But, if you’re a bonafide introvert like me, having your photo “secretly” taken – with the flash! – at the airport will NOT make you feel like a star. It will make you feel vulnerable and violated in ways you never expected. It will also make you wonder how many random Chinese Instagram feeds you’re turning up on until you (sadly) remember #3….
- Your social (media) life will be put on hold – and you’ll miss it more than you realize. Think those historic structures look cool against the smoggy Shanghai sky? Want to check-in at the local snack bar where you tried duck tongue for the first time? Perhaps you’d like to share how your day went with folks who are still 15 time zones away? Well – too bad! Most American social media sites are strictly blocked in China; there is no (legal) access to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram on your laptop or mobile phone. At first it might seem like the perfect time to start a digital detox, but you’ll soon find that it’s hard to have such new and jarring social experiences without the ability to share them with people who are like yourself. Although I was with colleagues for much of my trip, there were times when they were able to blend in to the international crowd and I wasn’t. Some of my experiences in China left me feeling totally and completely alone. If not for having downloaded WeChat to text with my husband, I would have had zero outlet for my fears, fascinations, and crazy encounters.
- You’ll still be hyper-sensitive to racism. Or what you may erroneously perceive as such. Sure, there were times when I genuinely felt targeted for being brown-skinned in a place that obviously wasn’t (and being tailed in an antique shop under the guise of “helping you find something” still feels icky on the other side of the planet), but there were also instances where my racial-spidey senses were needlessly activated. For instance, before visiting Shanghai, I had no idea that there was a word in Mandarin that’s used as a filler (the way English speakers say “like” or “you know”) which sounds a LOT like a racial slur beginning with the letter N. Suffice it to say, the first time I heard it spoken, I was taken aback. Did he just call me what I think he called me?! I walked around Beijing mad all night until I got a wifi connection at my hotel and looked it up. It turns out that folks had been saying “neige” with a relaxed pronunciation that made it sound more like when your big cousin comes over and asks, “What’s up my n–ga!” When you’re used to being that target of senseless hate or being ostracized for your race, that feeling doesn’t just shrug off like an over-large coat when you go abroad. While it’s important to recognize racial injustice wherever you are in the world, it’s equally important to pay attention to cultural context before you get yourself all wound up.
- Regardless of how you felt when you left, going back to America will still feel like going home. I’ll be the first to admit that I have almost irreparable issues with the good ol’ U. S. of A. As a descendant of slaves and a member of the oppressed class, I’m often at direct odds with what’s going on in this country. Many days I feel threatened, cast down, burdened, and unwelcome here. But, no matter how hard I try to resist it, there is always a part of me that longs for the moment when my plane touches down on American soil. My family is here. The life I’ve strived to build is here. My heart, at the moment, is here. And after being away from everything that looks like me for over a week, it didn’t matter much that this place was broken. It just mattered that it was mine.
Bonus: No matter how into the cultural context you are by Day Seven, it will still be hilariously jarring to see a man riding a motorcycle with twenty dead chickens hanging off the back of it.
Have you ever traveled abroad and been the lone Black or Brown face around? How was that experience for you? What things did you learn about yourself and your home country?