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.