Black Girl in China
China is the birthplace of many things. The Great Wall, The Terracotta Warriors, Tiananmen Square, Disney Shanghai, Chopsticks and Jackie Chan. What it’s not the home of is a culture that understands the beauty of black. As a black young person living in China, there was so much I had to learn as well as unlearn. China possesses a culture that cannot be understood unless experienced firsthand.
China for many years was a country completely cut off from the outside world. Imagine: no access to television, internet, magazines even medicines that were not created or developed inside your own country. As a result, many Chinese people have never seen people of other ethnicities in real life. This was (and still is) a fact that I had to keep in mind at all times. Living in Barbados where the population is predominantly black, I had never come across racism or discrimination of any serious kind. Of course I knew what certain derragatory words meant and like all black people, have a feeling of disgust that is associated with such verbiage. However living in China gave me my first true understanding of what these offensive words really mean.
The first instance that made me aware of the how little the Chinese people knew about blacks and black culture came a little later after my arrival. My roommate and I went exploring our new home and decided after a long day, it was better to hail a cab than it was to try to fumble our way, exhausted and a little bit unsure of our surroundings, back to school. We waited for about 30 minutes, a never-ending stream of empty taxis calmly overtaking us and collecting other passengers further ahead of us. At first I thought it was because there was some gesture that meant we wanted a cab that we were overlooking. Finally, a friendly taxi driver stopped for us and we wearily got in. He was very excited to see us. “You guys are foreigners. You are the first I have ever picked up!” After a lengthy conversation about us, I decided to ask him why we had difficulty finding a taxi. He became visibly uncomfortable and took a few moments before he replied. “Because you are black. We are afraid that maybe you will be violent or try to leave the taxi without paying. It’s what we hear.” I was absolutely shocked that this was the real reason. I couldn’t believe it.
Two years later and there are some things I’ve grown accustomed to: people asking you to take pictures with them so they can show their friends, the women who pull my hair as they debate whether or not it is real or having to wait minutes longer sometimes hours more than our Chinese and Caucasian counterparts when hailing a taxi. Sure I wave off most of these things and chalk them up to inexperience and ignorance. Am I okay with it? Of course not. But as I grow older and experience more in this country, I learn that the world isn’t as black and white as we would like it to be. It is filled with colour, prejudices, misconceptions and things we can not change; not immediately anyway. However there are small victories that restore my hope in humanity. Last week I ordered takeout in Chinese and smiled as the delivery man expressed amazement that a black foreigner could speak his own language so well. And that felt pretty damn satisfying.
– Alex Payne