Expat Stories: Being Black in China

Expat Stories: Being Black in China
Dec 21, 2015 By Sade Mckenzie , eChinacities.com

I remember being warned about the awkward stares and the flickering lights of iPhone cameras, but it didn’t register until I arrived in Shenzhen, China. I realized what it meant to be a spectacle, an object of either admiration or disgust.

Sure, in the beginning, it was fun, people taking pictures of me and asking me questions about my hair and skin. However, after a short period of time, the honeymoon phase vanished and the positive feelings I once had became replaced with irritation.

I would overhear little kids softly ask their parents, ‘Why is her skin so black?’ as they refused to sit next to me on the train. Pre-school students would even address me as ‘chocolate teacher’ as if I was a Hershey’s product. I became insecure. I couldn’t comprehend why Chinese people were so stunned by ‘Black’ people. Better yet, I couldn't understand why my identity was even questioned at all.

I noticed that whenever I was with my friends who had farer skin, it was automatically assumed that they were from the United States, United Kingdom or Australia. However, when it came to me, it was a head tilt, a gaze of confusion, and then a final question, “Where are YOU from?”

Before I can answer, I am usually interrupted by their assumption, “Africa?”

Now, of course I am fully aware of the fact that my ancestors are from Africa, and technically speaking, all of ours are; however, I can not seem to grasp the idea that I HAVE to be from Africa and no other continent.

One lady approached me in the gym and insisted on telling me about the friends she had in Kenya, and another stopped me during a hike to take a photo because, as she stated, "I have never seen people with this kind of skin before."

But the best statement of them all was by a Chinese man who stated, “Yes, if you’re American, then I’m African,” as if I was lying and pretending to be someone that I am not.

There were of course many educated Chinese who understood that the world was so vastly different and broader than one or two specific races, but nevertheless this cycle of ‘Where are you from?’ became a constant routine.

As the months continued to pass I became used to staring competitions on trains during rush hour, and group photo shoots while shopping, and eating in restaurants. It all became a part of my life here in Shenzhen, China

For any foreigner moving to another country, I can guarantee you that you will encounter and experience obstacles that will test and challenge your character. China has been the best test in helping me figure out who I am and what I stand for. I have experienced a 2 year long rollercoaster of emotions and feelings living here. Through it all I have realized that the best way to counter ignorance is to replace it with love and understanding. I wish that I could say it took me a couple of months to combat my feelings of frustration with love, but it didn’t.

However, instead of complaining and negating with Chinese customs and beliefs, I used my experience as an opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture and people. There is no better way to understand a person than to first understand why they do the things that they do.

Shenzhen is China’s first open economic zone, and has just recently opened their doors to foreign trade within the past 37 years. For many Chinese people, especially those from poorer backgrounds, witnessing any foreigner, dark or pale, is an unusual and sometimes overwhelming sight. This newfound information broadened my perspective on Chinese society. I developed empathy towards Chinese people and accepted that terms such as ’hen hei’ black, or ’wai guo ren’ outsider, had nothing to do with me as a person but everything to do with Chinese culture being a ,once, closed society.

Most importantly, I realized that who I am, and where I come from is not valued by what another human being believes or says. My value comes from who I say and believe myself to be.

And, honestly, in the end, who cares. We all come and go the same way.

As frantic and eye opening as my experience has been, I have grown to truly appreciate China, even if some people can be a little %$^*&#@$ (you get my point).

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Keywords: being black China African American China


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It's funny, I see blacks in America being racist towards white and Asians in America. Black "racism" towards nonblacks is more akin to a childlike ignorance of the world. Then it just makes it seem kind of sad.

Feb 20, 2016 07:59 Report Abuse



It's funny, I also experienced more racism from Indians in China than I did from Chinese as someone else mentioned. Chinese "racism" towards black/dark skinned people is more akin to a childlike ignorance of the world. Then it just makes it seem kind of sad.

Jan 26, 2016 06:55 Report Abuse



Book TV: Ying Ma, "Chinese Girl in the Ghetto" "Ying Ma talks about her experiences after moving from China to Oakland at age ten. She expected to live a better life in California than she did in her birth country, but instead found Oakland to be a broken city. Ying Ma spoke at he Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0KVX4xVMs

Jan 09, 2016 12:29 Report Abuse



So...if a Chinese girl complains about America it is education, but if a foreigner here complains about China you take it as an insult. Seems like creating hate keeps you very busy. I think only a bad person would try to make people angry, instead of preaching peace and forgiveness towards our brothers and sisters on this Earth. What do you think? Are you hurting or helping? PS Here in China we're not allowed YouTube.

Jan 15, 2016 02:33 Report Abuse



So...it's okay for some black people to complain about everything and saying everyone is racist when they don't get their way? When a nonblack writes about his/her personal experiences, it's not okay? I want peaceful loving societies on earth but I am NOT going to tolerate nonsense and a sense of entitlement. No one owes you anything! Respect is earned, not given! PS I keep myself busy with my job, and I try to be positive and not complain about everything. Have you ever heard of VPN?

Jan 15, 2016 04:13 Report Abuse



Seems you have a rather large sense of entitlement, and a whole lotta troll in you too. Your racist, prejudiced and mean comments are a common thread in the Echina forums. If you live in China, you should know 2 things: 1. Some Chinese don't like black people and aren't afraid or embarrassed to admit it. This woman is relating the story of how she deals/dealt with it. If you ever experience racism you will quickly realize how uncomfortable and downright scary it is, and will want to find comfort in sharing that feeling. That is being human. 2, VPNs are illegal. If you don't like China's rules, perhaps you should complain to the government, or leave :)

Jan 15, 2016 18:30 Report Abuse



I am not racist! Racism from blacks happen too. Go read about San Francisco's dirty little secret. There is a lot of black on Asian crime there. Let me repeat myself, RESPECT IS EARNED, NOT GIVEN.

Jan 15, 2016 19:15 Report Abuse



Perhaps when you stop using diversion as debate I can give a (respectful) sh*t about what you have to say :) Pointing out what other arbitrary (you seem fixated on America?) countries do or do not do doesn't make me forget what the topic is, or what country we live in. I'm not sure how old you are, but this changing the subject is preschool stuff.

Jan 27, 2016 00:47 Report Abuse



RESPECT IS EARNED, NOT GIVEN! This is relevant everywhere! Get a clue buddy, quit acting like people owe you something.

Jan 27, 2016 01:14 Report Abuse



Peace/blessings! I'm an african american male teaching at a university in China. I've been here less than 2 months. I come to understand and accept the Chinese staring, but at the university we have a small population of people from India. They stare at me worst than the Chinese. That's what get under my skin at times. A lot of these India peoples' skin is twice as dark as mine. At times I feel like telling these people from India whose skin is darker than mine , " what the %*^@" are you looking at. It's hard to understand their ignorance because they are much of a minority or foreigner as I am. So unfortunately I just stare at them twice as hard with piercing eyes and I feel sometimes you have to fight fire with fire and not water all the times. I think they are starting to get my drift, but it is sad the measures I've had to resort to.Thanks for reading!

Dec 23, 2015 18:26 Report Abuse




Dec 22, 2015 21:01 Report Abuse



A sick society that thrives on aggression in all forms one of which being racism.

Dec 22, 2015 10:35 Report Abuse



Sick foreigners who come to China and think the red carpet should be rolled out for them. Truly sick. No one owes you anything.

Dec 22, 2015 13:00 Report Abuse



The notion of 'racism' was created by early American settlers as a form of preserving wealth and power. Racism is not an individual characteristic based on 'hate' as the white man would like you to believe. Rather, it is 'a collective effort by a group (whites) towards another group to limit and/or prevent social mobility while securing power for their own self-interest.' That said, Chinese aren't racist; they are prejudiced people like the rest of us when it comes to our encounters with people we are unfamiliar with. I don't know how this is much of a story considering that Black people (native Africans at least) have lived in China since before America was even thought of~ In my experience, the United States of America is the only place where racism truly exist, and for a Black man, China is one of a few countries where people of my ilk are not marginalized!

Dec 22, 2015 08:28 Report Abuse



Funny how you use a definition of racism that is itself racist.

Dec 24, 2015 05:34 Report Abuse



Interesting link https://www.youtube.com/user/ColinFlaherty712 "Don't Make the Black Kids Angry: The Hoax of Black Victimization and Those Who Enable It."

Dec 21, 2015 21:25 Report Abuse



Chinese seem to be also experimenting with using social contrivance and class as a divisive strategy between foreign representations...In the USA...between races...In Europe...between historical precedents...

Dec 21, 2015 18:57 Report Abuse



Chinese are also experimenting with using social contrivance and class as a divisive strategy between foreign representations...In the USA...between races...In Europe...between historical precedents...

Dec 21, 2015 18:57 Report Abuse



A well written and thoughtful article. This guy could teach a lot ignorant westerners in China about culture and respect.

Dec 21, 2015 17:47 Report Abuse



hahahaha insightful comment from some damaged western junk

Dec 22, 2015 10:45 Report Abuse



Clearly you do, because you read it...

Dec 21, 2015 19:50 Report Abuse



I agree with you, who cares! There are many other races in China, not just blacks.

Dec 23, 2015 11:36 Report Abuse



The fact that the author experienced this racism in one of the most Westernized cities in China speaks volumes about the depths of ignorance throughout the rest of the country. I know a highly educated black American in the 3rd tier city I work in with dreads down to his waist. He says the Chinese people incessantly point and stare at him like like an alien. To be fair, they do the same thing to me, and I'm white. China's inability to achieve a global perspective will be its downfall. As The Ghost of Christmas Present said: "...beware this boy (Ignorance); for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

Dec 21, 2015 08:32 Report Abuse



Pointing and staring is not racism. If a white person went to remote parts of Africa, do you think Africans would point and stare? Would this be racism?

Dec 21, 2015 21:30 Report Abuse



the "educated" "understand" tact saves them face

Dec 21, 2015 07:55 Report Abuse