I’m Black in China. For some of my counterparts who share my skin tone, whether a darker or lighter hue, their experience is rife with difficulty. Chinese people stop and stare, gawk incredulously, sneakily snap pictures of you or boldly ask to pose beside you. Surely it can become tiresome defending your right to privacy and securing your personal space. But I have decided to liken the attention to celebrity status. From the Kat’s Eye, it’s all about perspective.
I remember telling my godfather that I wanted to go to China in my younger years. His response was, “I am glad you said that. Most Black people want to go to Africa.” Interestingly enough, the majority of Chinese people readily assume that if you’re Black you’re from Africa. For example, while sharing the elevator with an elderly man, he freely spoke Chinese to me as if I understood. It wasn’t until a Chinese woman, who spoke perfect English, entered the elevator that his attempt at communication became clear. The man just wanted to say “hello,”she said and tell me that he had spent 2 years in Africa. I smiled, said ni hao and told the woman to tell him, “I am from America.”
I would be naïve to deny any tracings of African descent. But I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, USA and South Carolina and Alabama is the farthest my parents, or grandparents sojourned from. To say that I am African-American is a disservice to the true Africans who embrace, live and celebrate their culture. I am American and I strongly identify as such. My godfather’s quip, while harsh on the surface, has far deeper meaning. In essence, he was saying go beyond your comfort zone, explore someplace where the faces of the people are different from your own.
Throughout the years, I accumulated books on Chinese history, customs, religion, Feng Shui, and Chinese cooking. These books gathered dust on my personal library shelves as my desire to travel to China lay dormant beneath familial and professional obligations. So it was a no brainer to fulfill one of my long term goals when presented with a job opportunity to teach English in China. Prior to my departure, my brother supported my decision by reminding me that I had a desire to travel to China since he was 16. He is now 28.
The beauty of living abroad in China is that the locals recognize your nationality above all else. Your skin color is incidental. I am not alone in this sentiment. I met a Black woman named Rachel in a local Latin bistro who has lived in Asia for several years. She parroted my thoughts… “In China, I am American and nothing else matters.”
But in America, the Black Lives Matter movement champions the belief that Black people are victims of racial inequality, racial profiling, economic disparity, educational deficiencies, and discriminatory practices to the brink of dehumanization. But who are these Black people? What country, nation, region, even state do they identify with outside the fact that their skin is Black?
I grew up in the projects, low income housing in a crime and drug ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn. Yet, there was never a phase in my life that I felt powerless or incapable of rising above my circumstances. I lived in America, the Land of Opportunity, the home of the brave, the Land of the Free. I understood that as an American, the civil rights once denied men and women of color did not embody my existence. Slavery days were over, I had been set free.
But in 2015, the climate of America is one of racial pain and anguish suffered by black people at the hands of (what’s deemed) oppressive systems of organization such as law enforcement, government and education. Instead of spreading a message of triumph and overcoming adversity, generated by the civil rights movement there is a new clarion call that sounds like “let my people go.”
Riots, looting, murder and criminal mischief is not representative of the entire Black community. Yet the media images depicting such dreadful acts become the global face of Black people everywhere. Should we be surprised then when non-black people draw back in fear, hold their purses or their women close or think and act disparagingly towards us; especially if their only encounter with Black people is that which is shown on television?
China is a homogenous environment. Pretty much everyone looks the same. I don’t view their stares, comments or behavior as racist as we would be quick to do in the U.S. I view it as a child-like curiosity, a sense of awe that someone unlike themselves, a person with different hair texture, skin tone, and body shape is walking among them in their native country. Now that I am here in the Sichuan province of Chengdu, I am delighted that China was a destination on my life’s journey.
The Chinese call the USA “mei-guo,” which means “beautiful nation.” I embrace the beauty that is the USA along with its scars and wounds. Although I understand the underlying drive behind Black Lives Matter, on a global scale, its intent is miniscule. I’m Black in China but I’m American. Here, my nationality speaks volumes, and that is all that matters.