Toto, We’re Not in Kansas

 

What does it mean to be a white girl in China?  Pretty much all of my life I have been in the ethnic and racial majority everywhere I have lived.  From growing up in a little mountain town in Western North Carolina, where some still believe the Confederacy will rise again, to attending a highly selective, private liberal arts school which, until a few decades ago was an all male majority white southern school, thus far I have never been a minority.  The issues of women’s rights and gender equality are still being worked out and will continue to take time to solve, however, to my knowledge my gender never played a role in the quality of my education or restricted me from any activities. In China, however, these traits, both race and gender, have played a significant role in my trip thus far.

To begin, I am living in a city of over 23 million people, so personal safety is definitely something that I must think about more while I am here compared to home or even small-town Davidson.  We women have been advised not to take cabs on our own, or walk alone after dark (this is a little more difficult as it gets dark here around 7). Nationality and gender combined have also been interesting topics as our professors have mentioned that the stereotypes of American women have been gleaned from Hollywood films, therefore, we are presumed to be loose, easy, and up for anything with the right proposition.  Armed with this information we all knew that it was going to be an exciting, if not interesting, semester in Shanghai.

Not only has the heightened emphasis on gender been a change for me, but also I am a minority here.  I knew that coming to China being a minority was a reality, but in my ignorance I did not fully comprehend what that would mean.  I have the advantage of having studied the Chinese language for a few years so I can converse on at least some level with the locals, but I still feel that I am living in a very limited social sphere.  The people thus far have been nice and try to help me when I am lost or looking for something, but it is a very isolating feeling to know that at this point I am stuck in a cultural and linguistic bubble.  For the first time in my life, I am able, in some sense, to understand what it might be like to be a minority in the US.  I am not trying to compare our situations at all, but it is an eye-opening experience.

In the US I know people who are so quick to say “Oh everyone must learn English,” and others who get so upset when they have to slow down and take the time to work with a person who is new to the English language and struggling with it in some way.  In China, however, I silently rejoice when I go into the city and am able to speak English to the wait staff in restaurants or run into other foreigners who can chat with me in our native tongue.  In the same way that conversations occur at home behind closed doors, I would love to know what is said about our group when we leave.  Are the people happy that we are in China to study, learn about their culture, and learn the language, or as those in the US, do they wish that we would make more of an attempt to use their language before so quickly asking “你说英文吗”(Do you speak English)?  I came to China knowing full well that the national language is Chinese, but still am overjoyed when during my interactions with people they switch to English so as to ease our communication problems.

Over the past few weeks in China, I have not only been the foreigner who struggles with the language barrier, but also a tourist attraction.  As our group walked up and down the Bund (a gorgeous waterfront view of the Shanghai skyline bordering a section of the Huangpu River), countless people have either stopped and asked to take a picture with us, or simply pulled out their phones and recorded us as they walked by.  At first this was a strange sight for all of us, but by now most everyone is used to it, although not always comfortable.  It is a very strange feeling knowing that when those people go through the pictures from their trip, along with the picture of the Mao statue, the Bund, and the shinning KTV tower, there will also be a picture of me, the random foreign girl they happened to run into while they were out.

Even less than a month in, this trip has shaped me in ways I am sure I have yet to realize.  Throughout the whole time I continue to be amazed by what adventures each day holds.  My greatest gift thus far, however, has been the awareness and consequences of being in the minority.  It is a feeling I will carry with me back to Davidson and hopefully on into the rest of my life.  With this new lesson under my belt, I can’t wait to see what China is going to teach me next.

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?

WTF

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.

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