In class we have read and talked about the Chinese tradition of fostering connections through guanxi networks and “keeping face.” But what Ellen Hertz discusses in her article, “Face in the Crowd: The Cultural Construction of Anonymity in Urban China,” is the newfound relationships that emerge by virtue of the new spaces and forums for public interaction found in China’s growing cities. I found this particularly relevant in relation to my own experience in Shanghai given the numerous types of interactions and spaces in which I find myself every day. Examples include dining out, living in a large residence building, and the bar scene at night.

The section of “Face in the Crowd” that was most instrumental in my thinking of these examples stated:

“Anonymity may provoke hostility, provide a context for intimacy, create an arena for public performance, reproduce relations of official elite domination, or place the individual under the collectivity’s spell – but it is never neutral. (Kindle Locations 3761-3762).”

I have found that whenever I go out to a restaurant or street vendor near the Fudan campus, the same person is almost always working there. I can now recognize the baozi lady, the soup dumpling lady, the convenience store lady, and the Japanese food lady. I have felt like I’ve gained a sense of home in a way just by seeing their familiar faces so often. Yet the fact is that I’ve never said anything of substance to them; we’ve only exchanged the usual daily courtesies. This made me think about the kind of relationship created by an urban space, one that suggests intimacy but functions under the pretence of formality. Basically, though we may smile and have moments of genuine kindness, there is still a seemingly impenetrable wall created not by language or culture, but by the roles (server and customer, in this case) that we each assume when entering the public arena. Working off the Hertz quote, the feeling of anonymity I’ve experienced dining out has both provided a context for intimacy and reinforced the existence of official relations.

Living in a large residence building, a now extremely common reality for urban Chinese people, has also given me a perspective on facelessness. In my town in Maine my family essentially knows everyone who lives on our street, which runs about a half mile long. But since living in the dorm, I still can’t tell you anything about who lives in the suite right across the hall. And I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with one of my suitemates, Michael, for more than two minutes (the other one is a talker, so facelessness isn’t really an issue for us). I assume that this is not an uncommon phenomenon for many Chinese people. Living in a building, though you are much closer to and have more opportunities for interaction with others, seems to create an environment where one can maintain his anonymity even more so than in more spacious or rural settings.

Lastly, the bar scene in Shanghai provides an all-encompassing example of the consequences of facelessness. Though I have not experienced all of Hertz’s examples, I have observed that the environment created by a nightclub can provide a context for conflict, intimacy, public performance, reinforcement of official roles, and collectivity. People are fighting, dancing, ordering drinks, and laughing together. Though bars and nightclubs are seen primarily as a mark of Western influence, their growing popularity in places like Shanghai suggest a desire of the new urban Chinese to experience and explore the many benefits of anonymity in their lives.

Niggas in Shanghai: “no one knows what it means…”


We were one of the first ones to arrive at Gate 2 of Terminal 1 back at JFK on August 29th. As other passengers began to arrive, I soon noticed a “what are you doing here?” expression on their faces. Not an offensive/racist look but a genuinely puzzled one. Those looks were of course directed to my roommate Daniel Seabrooks (henceforth, “DJ”), and myself. What were we doing going to China?


I must admit that I was a little worried about how my blackness would be received once we landed. Upon doing my research, I got a little pessimistic about my soon-to-be experience in Shanghai. I read a lot of bad stories on the Internet about how black people were treated but I decided not to let that discourage me. The first reason being that I wasn’t going on a vacation: I was going to be there to study and learn as much as I can. The second reason being that after having lived in West Texas for a little under 2 years and having experienced both passive and [very] active racism, I figured it couldn’t possibly be worse. Finally, I also realize that we as human beings tend to point out the oddities and the bad a lot more often than we do the normal and the good. In other words: I was obviously going to find a ton of example of black people being treated badly, than I was going to find articles of black people being treated… “normally”, I guess.

And I was right to not worry: I had my first pleasant experience during the [terrible] flight when a random passenger decided to start a conversation with me. I found it interesting that he began the whole thing in Chinese rather than in English. Later, whenever I would approach a vendor, they’d first attempt to communicate with me in very broken phonetic English, until they realized I could talk with them in Chinese. Through similar interactions I soon found out people were really enthusiastic and borderline pleased upon realizing I could express myself in their language, especially when they initially address me in English but I choose to respond to them in the Chinese.

I think they respect the fact that despite it being theoretically (because of their broken accent) easier for me to carry on the conversation in English, I deliberately choose to put myself through the struggle they were initially willing to put themselves through, for me. I learned to appreciate these simple exchanges through others’ experiences:

There are some Asians on this program who speak less Chinese than I do and get very disapproving looks because of that; especially GTFOwhen Lincoln, a Caucasian (the most fluent in Chinese of us all) has to step in and serve as a translator.






But being black here is not all black and g-, peaches and cream. It goes from nice experiences similar to those described above, to others that are more… disconcerting, to say the least. For instance:

– Random by passers asking DJ and I to pose in pictures with them.

– Kids that (by my standards) are grown enough to know better than to point at us because of our skin tone. I address this grievance to their parents who should have taught them better.

– Whenever I ask employees at food stores advice on what to pick, they just so happen to point at the chocolate dessert. I would be willing to concede that it’s a coincidence if 1, it hadn’t happened 3 times already and 2, “Africa Town” (the black version of Chinatown) wasn’t referred to as Qiaokeli Chengshi (Chocolate City) smh…

– Finally, what I find most annoying is being around fellow black folk. Allow me to explain: if I’m walking by myself and there happens to be another black person in the vicinity, I usually only notice him or her through the locals’ increased focus on me (they were already staring anyways). They begin to look at me, then at the other black person, back and forth like a Nadal-Federer game, waiting, expecting for us to interact just because we’re both black -___-  :

That last example unsettles me the most not because of Chinese people’s behavior in those instances, but rather because of the resulting effect of that behavior on us, black people in China. I’ll be honest: in all those cases I was [to an extent] going to interact with that person. At least say “hi” or “what’s up”. But because of my temperament, I have this natural incline to not do what this crowd expects of me. The idea that everyone around me is expecting me to behave a certain way, stops me from saying hello. Kind of like when you go to a zoo to see animals and you expect them to behave the way they’re expected to, in their natural habitat.

And I’m not the only one who exhibits this characteristic. I’ve tried to get over this annoyance by ignoring my surroundings and doing what I feel needs to be done (i.e., performing for the crowd), but I soon noticed that other black people would intentionally avoid making eye contact. One could make the case that they just don’t care and are oblivious to what’s going on; but I’m 22 years old and can read body language pretty well: I can tell when someone is avoiding eye contact. Besides, there are so few of us that eye contact is actually inevitable unless it’s intentionally avoided.

Why would I say hello to other black people in the first place you ask? I know this isn’t Davidson or your typical southern town where you say hi to everyone. But still: in these cases, you just do. It’s hard to explain really… Although there isn’t any actual struggle per se, saying hi to each other is a form of support. A simple nod means a lot and usually suffices to say:

“Hey man what’s up? Don’t you miss being back home around the people who understand you? Yeah I’m also fed up of behaving a certain way just because the real me might unsettle those around me. By the way do you know where I can get a good edge up? Also, I’m out of grease and I lost my durag: hook me up. Hey I gotta say: it feels good to walk into a KFC and not be judged or laughed at for being there. I’m bout to start a TT #blackpplstrugglesinasia. Yeah, I miss my bruhs too.”

But even that little nod is expected so no shot: we don’t use it. Once again, as I discover a new culture and learn a new language in a new country, I’m forced to change a part of who I am by changing how I normally behave. Once again, as I move from point A to point B, a part of me is Lost in Translation.

Niggas in Shanghai: And they’re going Pandas!

I normally pride myself on being the objection of everyone’s attention with my impeccable smile, smooth face and (although slightly loosening) solid body. Now, while many may reserve such egotism, I ardently embrace mine and profess it proudly to the world… Let’s face it, I’m vain. However this narcissistic sentiment quickly changed to uneasiness, perhaps frustration as I unremittingly endure awkward smiles, confused glances and uncouth rubbernecking by 上海人 (Shanghainese), and it’s not just because I am 老外 (foreigner). To put it simply, I’m Black in the city of Shanghai, and even though China is experiencing an unprecedented rise in foreigners, visiting Blacks (any and all kinds) add little chocolate to the endless yellow sea of Shanghai.

This is the second consecutive semester where I once again label myself as the anomaly and I once again I find myself inquiring on the Black Identity in the international scene. With more fervor, I look, listen, and live the ever-changing regional media to catch glimpses of anything reminiscent of Blackness. Discounting the one billboard that we saw in Tianzifang, I was immediately mortified (and oddly humored) by the other discovery in the Wanda Plaza shopping center: two stiff, choad-shaped manikins personifying what I assume the media depicts about Black people; and apparently we’re Cyclopes! Henceforth, those two will be known as Bonquiqui and Tyrone and this unique pair can be seen on display at a little boutique called Devilnut,

To be forthcoming, the images of the pistol, the unreal incisors and thug living passed on as a la moda fashion in the Black community is asinine; and the two Cyclopes’ attire of sagging jeans, bandanas and gaudy jewelry passed on as modern and cosmopolitan is a lie. All of these would have been acceptable if they weren’t coupled with the superfluous use of menacing tattoos, in particular the overt inscription of the word “NIGGAZ” on Tyrone’s chest, which is both ignorant and offensive. As if the three eyes and distasteful attire weren’t enough…

Whether by divine intervention or happenstance, I find it very enlightening to have discovered these two just hours after Fuji’s foretelling condemnation of my router’s name. The juxtaposition of those two occurrences allowed me to decipher Black images in the local media more clearly and rationally – couldn’t have me getting ghetto in China! Having seen Bonquiqui and Tyrone, I was immediately overwhelmed with more than one gut reaction, but due to both Fuji’s earlier objection and many of the China Urban articles on modernization in post-Mao China, calling the society racist was no longer one of them. Instead, I will say that this Chinese quest for modernity and cosmopolitanism has revealed to me two things: (1) there is an international image for Black people and it has infiltrated Chinese culture (so much that it is at the point where the word “nigga” in not only known, but has become a socially accepted term) and (2) they’re not at fault for adopting these images… we are.

I wouldn’t conclude by saying that when I am gawked and giggled at that the 上海人 are subconsciously (or God forbid, consciously) categorizing me with Bonquiqui and Tyrone because I don’t think that I embody anything that the mainstream media depicts about Blacks. (Plus with my high sex appeal and metrosexual tenets, I am undoubtably classier than those two monstrosities… but I don’t judge.) Confronting the transnational image that I’m compared to and thus competing against only reinforces my sentiments of being black abroad. As I informed Shanel, since the preconception of Black is skewed, it is our responsibility to serve as the iconoclast of the vulgarities that we’re associated with and create a new definition for Black.

Praying in Chinese

Within earshot of the Yuyuan Gardens thronging with loud tourists, there is a quieter and more serene area that houses the unassuming entrance to the City God Temple. Like much in contemporary China, the temple has blurred the line between tradition and modernity. Although the City God temple is ostensibly rooted in ancient rituals, the current commercialization shows the tension between modern development and traditional beliefs in Chinese culture.

The City God Temple is officially a Daoist space dedicated to the worship of the Tudi Gong, or City God. The temple is more linked to popular or folk religion than Daoism, but the government does not allow popular religion spaces. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, China officially became an atheist state in conjunction with the Marxist concept of rejecting religion. Despite the CCP’s campaign for secular faith, many religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to flourish in China. Popular religion worship continues too, but it is rarely identified publicly as such.

Traditional belief dictates that the City God is like a spiritual governor that watches over the area and its people. There are other minor gods throughout the temple as well. In Chinese popular religion, there is a hierarchy of bureaucratic gods that protect and regulate their constituents. Each human bureaucrat has a counterpart office in the spiritual world. There are bureaucratic gods at each level with progressively increased power all the way up to the Jade Emperor.

Outside the temple, there is an open area for making incense offerings. For 5 or 10yuan, a worshipper can buy incense and then perform the appropriate ritual. With the guidance of a peer, I gave an incense offering. First, I let my incense burn in a pit (without lighting it). Once my incense has charred, I bowed three times to each cardinal direction. While bowing, I thought about my prayer or wish. Afterwards, I put my incense in a large cart with the rest of the smoldering incense. I noticed that the physical act of offering incense made my ritual feel more significant. More than simply thinking my wish, acting out the ritual helped me connect to the practice.

At this spiritual space, the tension between modern development and traditional faith is clear. The temple is under construction to maintain its traditional appearance, but it is still well within sight of urban development. Even at the temple, a visitor is never far from a Western franchise or a skyscraper. While there are clearly sincere worshippers at the temple, there is also a souvenir shop. Tourists taking pictures stand alongside worshippers offering gifts in ritual. Worshippers must buy a ticket to enter the temple, and purchasing offerings is another cost. Like at this temple, it seems that the commercialization of traditional Chinese culture is widespread in Shanghai.

Modern China has felt this tension between the past and present throughout the country. Although China is often presented as one continuous and uniform civilization, public opinions on the past and the country’s traditions often change. For example, Chairman Mao decried the Forbidden City as opulent and decadent. Now, however, the government embraces the Forbidden City as a symbol of the past’s glory and grandeur. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution infamously called for the new, young, and modern. Older ideas were passionately persecuted. Now, the Cultural Revolution is considered a mistake. In a similar cycle, Confucianism went out of fashion during the Communist push for egalitarianism, but the government supports Confucianism again because of its connection to tradition and continuity.

China now has a combination of modernity and tradition, but the balance still seems uneasy. In particular, Shanghai seems like a glittering Western city, but people actually denounce it for that exact reason. Tourists expect a traditional Chinese experience, even as the business world encourages China to modernize and commercialize.

Visiting the City God temple was a really memorable day because I could see how traditional beliefs flow and intermingle with modern urban development. Personally, I really like that ambiguity about China. Almost simultaneously, the country seems to push rapid development while also fighting to hold on to its traditional Eastern qualities. The contradictions are ubiquitous and unforgettable. The tension between the old and the new is what makes Shanghai so interesting and irresistible. 

Eye-Catching, To Say the Least

The ethnic diversity of the Davidson in Shanghai students makes us stand out from the crowd. With hometowns from the west coast, the Midwest, rural North Carolina, southern Florida, and even France, our entrance to Shanghai made an impression. Those of us with non-Asian ancestry have distinct features that make us stand out in a group of Chinese people. As for me, I knew my white skin and red hair would not blend in with the crowd.

Shanghai is arguably a global city. While the fascination with westerners is very much alive in China, walking down the streets of Shanghai, especially near the universities, will get you a few stares, but venture downtown to tourist areas and you can expect to have your picture taken. There you will meet Chinese people from the countryside and other rural areas of China who are mesmerized by westerners. During orientation week the entire group visited Nanjing Road, a popular attraction for tourists and eager shoppers. While sitting down at a bench, a Chinese girl and her mother passed by but not before they stopped near me. The mother wanted her daughter to take a picture with me, but the little girl was too shy. I politely smiled and waved goodbye. Other times the attention has been more drastic. In one particular case, a group of young Chinese adults stopped and immediately stared at me as I walked by them.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

A group of westerners traveling together can be easily spotted. Anytime the entire group ventures out I am on the lookout for peoples’ reactions. During any visit to the Bund, at least one of us is asked to pose for a picture. Our first night out a Chinese man was determined to be in a picture with all of us. Since the United States has many ethnicities with very distinct characteristics, this new attention proved to be a new concept for us. Even though we are quick to detect physical diversity, many of us are unaware of China’s diverse population.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that while China is considered to be ninety percent Han (he deems this a “problematic” number), the country is not without diversity, containing even more ethnic classes, speaking different dialects, and exhibiting different cultures than one might realize.[1] Wasserstrom believes Americans have a “too-limited appreciation of China’s diversity,” and suggests that misconceptions about China’s diversity are hundreds of years old, aided in part by war and visual representations such as books and film.[2] Shanghai provides a useful example to correct this misconception.

One unique quality and clear distinction between Shanghaiers and other mainland Chinese people is language. Shanghaiers have their own dialect called Shanghainese. Unlike the United States where everyone who speaks English can be understood, Chinese people who speak Mandarin cannot necessarily understand this specific Shanghai dialect. Shanghai is home to many young adults. Wasserstrom believes generational gaps also contribute to China’s diversity. He acknowledges that generational gaps exist throughout the world but believes China’s is most noteworthy. According to Wasserstrom, in 2007, the number of individuals under thirty years old constituted forty percent of China’s total population.[3]

While physical appearance is the most obvious form of diversity, various dialects and ideologies can deepen a population’s diversity. Even though they are watching me and thinking about how different I look, I am also watching them and wondering about their story. Being diverse is not always about standing out in a crowded space.

[1]Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China In the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, Kindle edition, 2010), location 1818. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/history/faculty_profile_wasserstrom.php.

[2]Wasserstrom, location 1785.

[3]Wasserstrom, location 1817.