Okay, first and foremost, this was my first ever trip abroad and I was well aware of the major cultural differences between America and Asian countries before embarking on this one. Having said that, I still don’t know if I was completely prepared for it all.
Alright, so this past May I went to China for a study abroad trip with 9 other girls and a professor from my university named Kevin. Kevin is native to Taiwan and has done this trip numerous times so right out of the gate, he told us some of the things we’d experience while there.
People will stare
People will take pictures
There is no personal space
Do not take it personally, many of them have only ever seen asian people.
With Kevin’s advice in hand, I thought I was ready for the trip. And I was, mostly. Yeah I was definitely ready. First of all, I’ve already discussed the beauty of the whole experience. But I wanted to have a separate discussion about how I felt as a black woman in the country.
Okay, Kevin told us. In fact, a lot of people who knew I was going on the trip felt the need to tell me as well. Ignoring me every time I said I knew that I would be stared at and that it was not necessary for them to tell me as well. Anyway, I honestly did not mind it in the beginning. I was excited because I felt like I was helping to broaden the world view of some of the people. Like just by existing, I was helping someone understand that the world was so much bigger than them and that there are tons of different types of people and experiences they should meet and have. I doubt if they felt the same way but I like to imagine they did. People would crane their necks to get a good look at us. Tap the shoulders of the family members and exclaim until they saw us as well. I didn’t mind it. By the time we got to Shanghai though, I was over it. The city has over 24 million people living in it, not to mention the other millions who visit annually. There were TONS of people there. So many that I could feel the eyes on me whenever we were in a public place. I was not a fan of how touristy the city was and therefore I was not as excited about being there and the staring made it slightly less enjoyable than the others.
The pictures and the staring kind of go hand in hand. Some people worked up the nerve to ask while others would just remain staring. The language barrier was just that, but we knew what people meant when they motioned for a photo and agreed most of the time. I hated the people who would literally pull me into posing with them though, and while this was not an everyday occurrence, it happened often enough to make me freak out when I saw a hand coming towards me. Most of the pictures were taken without our consent while we stood around waiting for other group members or stood talking with the tour guide. Those were okay but I hated them at places like The Forbidden City which has thousands of people inside each day. That’s easily hundreds of camera phones(cuz I’m not counting super old/young people) capturing my face.
The Personal Space:
This one is more of a cultural thing so I don’t want to pick it apart and critique it just because it is different from what I am used to. I think it’s rude to travel to a foreign country and be disrespectful of customs that are normal there. But I’m such an awkward and germy person, I felt so weird with people standing closer than an arm’s length. That’s only an issue when were standing still though, and given the fact that we walked thousands of steps each day, and mostly stood next to each other, it was not the biggest issue.
Now, this was only the introduction because I needed you to understand that the staring, the grabbing, the pulling happened to all of us in the group, before I begin to unpack being Black there.
I wore my hair in two simple braids the whole time. I knew that for some reason non-black people in America sometimes had trouble with me changing my hair so I decided to avoid the extra stares/ conversation my hair would arouse in Asia and went safe with the braids.
My roommate on the trip was natural and she had very long, very thick hair. She wore it in a puff/ponytail for the first couple of days until I suggested that she wear it out. And she did just that for the rest of the trip. I used to be like “Natural black girl in China” all the time around her because I loved that she was exposing the people to something very new and very exciting.
people touched without her permission and it upset me and it wasn’t even my head. I understand curiosity, and I also understand how the lack of personal space played into people feeling like they could touch her hair.I also understand that she was very obviously a Black woman, meaning she was not Asian and not from China and that they had to know touching her hair was not okay.
This happened to another girl in the group as well. She had chosen to wear faux locs. Which are just synthetic extensions made to look like real locs. Not very complicated. Anyway, an older couple at a Buddhist Temple made a detour towards I group as we sat between some buildings in the shade taking photos to come and stare at her hair. But I guess looking wasn’t enough and the older woman really needed to feel the locs between her fingers. We all looked on in shock as she gestured for her husband to join her.
It was awkward and uncomfortable and we left immediately.
We went out to a flea market-y type of mall and were inside one of the little stores. One of the other girls tried on a dress, decided she didn’t like it and went to put it back on the hanger. It was a strappy dress with lots of parts and she couldn’t figure out exactly how to get it back on there. The worker in the shop, a middle aged woman, snatched the dress out of her hands and sat it down on a pile of other things.
Disgusted, Teesha stated how upset she was and then left the store. We soon followed, confused of course. While the woman and the two other women in the shop stared at us very obviously talking about the incident as well. In situations like that, I wished that the language barrier didn’t exist so we could have stood up for ourselves.
There were a few other instances where I felt like the other non-black girls in the group were being treated better than we were. And it was something that I had expected. Communities of color are rife with anti-blackness and colorism. Many of them associating darker skin with manual labor, ignorance, being poor or just simply being inferior. That’s within their own communities, with people who are of the same race as them.
Most of the dismissive behavior towards us came from older people. In fact, none of the younger people ever said or did anything to make us feel even more like outsiders. There were some waitresses who stared at us while we ate at a pizza hut but it was after closing time and they probably had nothing else to do so I excuse that one. But the older generation were clearly the ones who had the main issues with us. We theorized that this was because the younger people spent more time on social media, therefore they saw us all the time. But all American social media sites are blocked in China so that theory makes no sense.
But anyway, my weird experiences in China weren’t enough to negatively impact my overall love for the place.
I will be going back eventually. (I had to buy a 10 year visa so of course I’m going back)I tried not to take anything personally because, again, many of these people have never seen a non-Asian person before. Being rude to them because they don’t understand goes against the entire purpose of travel, in my opinion.
I’m glad that there was some weirdness because I plan on travelling a lot more and I know there will be more awkwardness that occurs because of my blackness. And that’s totally fine because I want to learn more about other cultures, and from me they will learn that black women are unapologetic and proud of their blackness.