Having lived overseas and being integrated into my school in Belgium as a child, I would say I am a veteran at confronting race issues abroad. Despite these experiences, nothing could prepare me for China.
Bare in mind that China is a closed state and as such, they don’t get many outside visitors. Don’t get me wrong; Shanghai is a rather international city so they are much more used to foreigners, or Laowai as they call us. Hong Kong however, doesn’t count. The truth of the matter is that many Chinese have only ever seen Black people on television and as a result, their conceptions of us are quite skewed. They believe that all colored people are either basketball players or rappers/performers. Needless to say, the mere glimpse of a Black person can send a whole village of people into a frenzy.
From the moment I set foot on the ground at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, I knew I was in for quite a ride. I sensed my impending gloom as I looked around realizing that out of the hundreds of people in line in front of me, I could only count 3 or 4 who looked like me. This is typically the case everywhere I go.
This poses quite a problem when trying to get around in China. At first, there are the awkward stares and the pointing and quite frankly, many Chinese will treat you like a zoo animal. Then, depending on where you are, you will suddenly be rushed by a group of Chinese all attempting to take pictures of you on their phones (without asking, mind you) and next thing you know, they are asking their friends to take pictures of them with you. You may even be handed a baby or two. That isn’t an exaggeration. Chinese people love foreigners and many consider it good luck to have you hold their baby for a picture.
Aside from the pointing, staring and pictures, you get the mobs that follow you around everywhere you go. Sometimes, a photo shoot can last for 20 minutes if someone doesn’t stop them. It happened to my friends and I as we were visiting The Bund in Shanghai. Out of nowhere a guy approached a black member of our group and asked him if he was “NBA.” He assumed because my friend was tall and Black, that he must be an NBA player, and so the photo shoot commenced and lasted for quite a while.
There will inevitably be the questions: Is her butt real? Can I touch your hair? Are her breasts enhanced or are those natural? Now I must say, hearing it all said in Chinese was probably the most intimidating part of all this because it sounds so harsh when they ask. I am currently wearing Senegalese Twists and everywhere I go, middle-aged women will ask to touch my hair. It can be flattering at times but it’s mostly pretty annoying. I was so frustrated my first week in China that I spent a lot of time crying and even considered returning to Europe. After the initial shock, it all seemed quite silly. You are acting as a door to the outside world and as such, you must be prepared to teach them everything you can, even if it is only through a picture.
Either way, I must say that if you are Noire and traveling to China, you absolutely must spend some time mentally preparing yourself for the experience because I can guarantee you, it will be unlike anything you have ever experienced.