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So What's It Like Being Black In China?

What better way to start off a new month than with what could be a slightly controversial post! This post has been in my drafts for weeks now, and I've been nervous about writing it out to the fullest extent that I could, mainly because the internet is heavily censored here. Every time I would draft a little bit, I'd get nervous about uploading and think "nah, not now", but I think it's time! Whatever I write will still give you guys an idea of what it's like to be a black woman in China today.

When I read Tanya Weeke's post about this exact same topic I decided that yes, I should make my own post and upload it anyway. This isn't going to be a discussion about what's happening to Africans in Guangdong; there are plenty of news sources online and videos on YouTube recounting what's going on, including my own Instagram post on the subject. Instead, this is going to be me telling you guys about my day-to-day life as a black woman living in China - all the ups, downs, and everything in between!

Now, I should say that this is my experience in China. If you're black and you've been here before, your experience might be different depending on a lot of factors. If you're black and you plan on coming here one day, your experience here could be totally different from mine. 

So let's start off light, and that's with all the staring. I mainly lived in predominantly white areas in the UK, so I know what it's like to be stared at in a whole number of ways. But the staring in China is on an entirely different level because here, it's not just one or two people on the road or in the shops - it's everyone! People driving their cars craning their necks out the window (sometimes while still driving!) to stare as I walk past, entire metro carriages stopping whatever they're doing to stare as I enter, everyone in the shop going quiet and staring if I walk in - and the list could just go on and on. Side note - if you have your hair in braids or an afro, be ready to swat hands away because people here are shameless and will absolutely shove their hands in your hair if you're not looking!

I honestly don't mind if it's kids doing the pointing or staring, simply because they're kids and a lot of them don't know any better, but if it's anyone above teen age I have a problem with it, and usually stare right back until they feel embarrassed. The crazy thing though is that a lot of older people here don't feel embarrassed at all and will just keep on shamelessly staring anyway! In the UK once eye contact has been made people usually look away, but that's something that doesn't happen here haha!

Going hand in hand with the staring is the pointing, whispering, and my personal enemy - photos. People here really think we don't notice them "slyly" whipping out their phones and taking a photo, but we 100% always do! In fact, I think I've developed a 6th sense for it now that it's happened so frequently!

The thing I mostly hate about photos is that 99% of the time, people don't ask and they just decide to take one themselves. However, there are some occasions where people will come up to me and kindly ask for a photo. Sometimes parents ask me to take a photo with their child as it's usually their first time seeing a black person either ever in their life or not through a screen, so I sometimes agree and we take a few selfies together. It's honestly crazy how that small action honestly ends up making someone's day!

On top of being pointed at, stared at, whispered about, and having my photo taken, there's also the never ending questions strangers come up and ask out of the blue. They range from a simple "Where are you from" or "What are you doing in China" (not said maliciously by the way! People are just curious as to whether you're studying or working!) to something as deep as "So does your country have the same resources as China?" I've even had a Didi driver ask me how many wives a man can have in my country, which was honestly just the strangest thing I've ever been asked. If they see you can hold down a conversation in Chinese, they get very excited and questions become more and more so be warned!

I will admit, I do love it when kids come up and say hi because they want to practise their English or because they just haven't seen a black person before!

And that's another point - whether you're black from America, the UK, Canada, the Caribbean, or anywhere else in the world that isn't Africa - if you look physically black, you're African point blank and the period. When people ask, I've just stopped saying I came from the UK and just say I'm Zambian instead, because they just don't believe me! 

All of these things happen relative to how many foreigners are in the area. Since I don't live in one of the big cities like Shanghai or Beijing, a lot of people in my city aren't used to seeing foreigners at all. And if I go to an area that isn't around a university campus or the main town, then all I'll be hearing is "外国人, 外国人" (wàiguó rén = foreigner) as I go past.

A lot of people wonder if Chinese people are racist and how racism is handled over here, and I've only had one nasty experience in my one and a half years of living in China. I went to the bank to receive some money - a bank I always went to and they had always been nice to me before but on this particular day, the teller took one look at my passport (as a foreign student, you need to take your passport and school ID everywhere, otherwise you can't get anything done!) asked if I was African, and said I'm not welcome to the bank anymore and no amount of arguing could get her to change her mind. It was a huge pain in my behind because I had to travel all over the city looking for a new bank to sign up with, but the fact that in China you can discriminate against someone just because of where they come from - and legally it's okay - is a massive problem that needs to be addressed - just look at what's happening in Guangdong!

A lot of people are rude, just like anywhere else in the world - people refusing to sit next to you on the bus, or crossing the road when you go past etc - but I have also met a lot of lovely people here who wouldn't do anything like that! You do have a lot of thoughts that go through your head when someone isn't particularly nice, a lot of it being "are they rude because they're in a bad mood today, or are they just racist", but if you let those thoughts take over every time something happens, you'll have a pretty miserable stay in China!

Before I came here, I thought making Chinese friends would be easy, especially as I was living on campus, but I've found it much harder! To this day, I only have one person and a lovely family I can call my friends and they're all pretty great! In my experience though, a lot of the Chinese people on campus befriend the white students or other Asians. It might just be my introvert nature of not wanting to approach people first though!

Any strange experiences? Of course! A strange experience I had came last summer when I was with my other foreign friends. We went hiking up a mountain near our uni and once we got to the summit, we took in the view and started taking pictures. I noticed a guy come and sit on the bench right next to us and start staring at us intently. I ignored him at first, because everyone stares so it's not a big deal. But when we started exploring the shops at the top (shops on a mountain, only in China!) I noticed him again - it's that 6th sense! - following us in and out or waiting outside for us to come out. When I told my friends what was going on, we decided that we should leave because none of us had been followed before and even though he was young and didn't look like he could do anything, you can never be too careful.

As we were heading down, he was following really close behind us, my friend turned around to ask him if he was lost or something, and this guy said he was looking for a bus stop! On a mountain! We sped up, but every time we spend up he decided to too. We took a pause at some benches and he started up a conversation with us, but blatantly lying about where he was from and whatnot. He followed us all the way to the entrance and thankfully we managed to slink away in a crowd but turning around I could see he was looking for where we went! So weird, especially because if we were any other race I doubt that would have even happened!

It wouldn't really be a proper analysis without me telling you guys about my experience with other foreigners here in China. Coming from the UK, I'm used to being around a lot of other minorities, but the difference there is that we all have one thing in common, which is that we all grew up in the UK. In China though, all foreign people come from different backgrounds and all have different upbrinings; we don't have anything in common other than we're all now living in China.

That being said, I've had people straight up to my face tell me they didn't think black people were clean or that they're surprised black people don't behave in the way we're expected to. It's been a shock for people to learn that not all black people are the same, and that their thoughts are destructive and rude. I've also seen that if I make friends with someone from a different ethnicity, other people from that group are now more accepting to smile at me if we pass each other in the halls or say hi to me if we're in a queue. I'm guessing because they've seen now that whatever stereotypes they had were so far left, and if someone from their country thinks I'm okay, then it's fine for them to be open now too!

So that's been my experience of living in China! September 2020 will mark 2 years of living here, and I cannot believe it's been that long this quick! It's not been so bad living here. A lot of people are just curious and want to find out about you, so if you're an extrovert and love talking to people and can even converse in Chinese, I have no doubt you'll be able to make a lot of friends and have a pretty good time. 

Other than that one bank experience (and the strange guy on the mountain), my time here has been really good! I'm used to the staring and can even zone it out now if I want to, but with the photos I just don't think I'll ever get used to that! I'm really excited to see how the rest of my life here will play out!

What's been your experience living abroad? Do tell me below!

Related post: Experiencing Cultural Shock In China

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