My Character-Building Experience of Being Black in China

My Character-Building Experience of Being Black in China
Jun 05, 2024 By Sade Mckenzie ,

Before I moved to China I was warned about the awkward stares and not-so-subtle photo taking I could expect as a Black person. It wasn’t until I actually had my feet on the ground in Shenzhen, however, that I realized I was set to be nothing less than a spectacle; an object of either admiration or disgust. Here’s my account of what it’s like being Black in China.

being black in China

In the beginning, it was almost fun. Chinese people wanted to take pictures of me and ask questions about my hair and skin. It was almost flattering to receive so much attention immediately upon arrival. However, after a very short honeymoon period, the feelings of amusement I once had at being a Black person in China were replaced with feelings of resentment and irritation.

I would overhear kids on the subway quietly asking their parents, “Why is her skin so dark?” as they refused to sit next to me. The pre-school students I taught English to would address me as “chocolate teacher,” as if I was some kind of Hershey’s product. Knowing that the things the children were saying were probably what everyone else was thinking, I became insecure. I didn’t understand why Chinese people were so astounded by Black people.

Worse than the insensitive comments of children were the ignorant questions from adults. I found my identity was constantly up for debate. Whenever I was with expat friends with fair skin, the Chinese adults we met automatically assumed that they were from the United States, the UK or Australia. I, however, was met with a head tilt and a gaze of confusion before the classic question: “And where are YOU from?” Before I’m even given a chance to answer, I’m usually interrupted by their assumption: “Africa?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully aware that my ancestors are from Africa, as, technically speaking, all of ours are. That said, it’s frustrating that in this day and age it’s automatically assumed that I myself was born and grew up there just because of the color of my skin.

It was the assumptions that really got to me. One time a woman approached me in the gym and insisted on telling me all about her Kenyan “friends.” Most grating perhaps was a Chinese man who responded to my answer to the questions of “Where are to from?” with, “If you’re American, then I’m African,” as if I was lying.

There are, of course, many educated Chinese people who understand that the world outside of China is not divided on such literally black and white lines, but, nevertheless, the insensitive questions about where I was from and comments about my hair and skin kept coming. As the months passed by, staring competitions on trains and constant requests for photos just became part of my life.

Any foreigner moving to another country is likely to experience prejudice that will test and challenge their character and sense of self. While it has undeniably been very hard at times, the simple act of being Black in China has helped me figure out who I am and what I stand for. After a two-year-long rollercoaster of emotions, I’ve realized that the best way to counter ignorance is to meet it with love and compassion.

I wish that I could say this is always how I respond to ignorance, but it isn’t. Sometimes I ignore people and turn away when they ask me stupid questions or want photos. Sometimes, I angrily point out their ignorance when they assume to know where I’m from. However, instead of complaining and constantly fighting against the tide of Chinese customs and misconceptions about my race, sometimes I manage to reframe my experiences as an opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and history. There’s no better way to understand a country than to first try to understand its people.

Shenzhen was China’s first open economic zone, having only welcomed foreign trade in the early 1980s. For many Chinese people, therefore, especially those from poorer and/or more rural backgrounds, meeting any foreigner, dark or pale, is a novel and sometimes overwhelming experience. Meeting Chinese people “where they were at” helped broadened my perspective of Chinese society and understand that terms such as “hei-hei’ (blacky) and “wai guo renI (outsider) have nothing to do with me as a person but everything to do with China’s continued status as a largely sheltered society.

Most importantly, I’ve realized that I do not need the recognition of others to be confident in who I am and where I’m from. My self worth comes from who I say and believe myself to be. And, honestly, in the end, who cares? We all come and go from this world the same way, so what use is expending my energy fighting the people I meet that are yet to realize that?

As frantic and eye-opening as my experience of being Black in China has been, I have grown to truly appreciate my adopted country. Even if some of its people can be a little %$^*&#@$. I’m still working on that “love and tolerance” bit.

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Keywords: being black in China black people in China


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You learn something new everyday. Leading with peace is always the best way. Could you write an article about Shenzhen the city?

Jul 01, 2024 13:47 Report Abuse


Your experience is just the same as any other foreigner's here, no matter white, black or brown

Jun 05, 2024 15:07 Report Abuse