(Disclaimer: My experience was in the summer of 2013 and it’s possible that things have changed a bit in the three years since.)
No matter who you are, a good word to know before you go to China is “老外/lǎowài.” It’s a general word for “foreigner” and is often used to refer to anyone who appears to be “not from around here.” My friends and I heard it virtually every day, especially travelling in packs as our study abroad program tended to do.
However, in my program’s pre-departure orientation materials there was a specific (though small) section for minorities traveling abroad. From what I remember, it was pretty vague—simply a warning that we might be treated differently and that we should be on the lookout—but the threat of potential racism was enough for me to start worrying.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. What did “potential racism” mean? Hostility? Gawking? Pointed rudeness? Refused service? I had no idea. Personally, I grew up in a town that was around 90% white and only 2% black, so I was no stranger to being a minority or looking different from those around me. However, I was worried that I might actively be putting myself in a position to experience “real” racism for the first time (whatever that meant).
Is the woman behind me looking at me or simply reacting to the camera? Constant dilemma.
One thing’s for sure: it was impossible to keep a low profile. People stared at me literally everywhere I went. I assure you that it wasn’t just in my head: my friends thought it was hilarious. Honestly, it got to the point that if ever I was out on the street and people didn’t stare, I wondered what was “wrong.”
(For the record, a similar level of curiosity was directed towards a very tall, blond guy and a redheaded girl on my program. Any significantly distinctive feature was enough to turn you into a spectacle.)
Additionally, people took photos of me everywhere and at all times. One of my first times on the Beijing subway, I looked to the side and found myself face to face with a DSLR camera. The act was so brazen that I initially assumed that the woman must have been taking a picture of something else (she wasn’t).
Sometimes people would stop me and ask me to take a photo with them or their small children, but often they just went right ahead and did it—a few times I even caught people taking surreptitious “selfies” with me in the background.
This photo of my friend is a pretty accurate depiction of what walking through Beijing sometimes felt like.
Another strange thing I encountered was the widespread assumption that I must be from Africa. One time, one of my friends’ language partners asked me where I was from, and I told him New York. Surprised, he asked again: “Really? You’re not from Africa?” It was like the reverse of that scene in Mean Girls: If you’re from America, why are you black?
This guy was actually a student at Peking University, one of the best universities in China, but he was pretty surprised by the idea that people from America might be any race, or that not all black people come from Africa. Similarly, another day at the Summer Palace a large tour group walked by me and my friends, and a curious man separated from the crowd to yell (in Chinese), “Are you from Africa? Is she from Africa?”
I’m not sure why people bothered taking photos of me with scenes like this as an alternative.
Don’t get me wrong: being stared at incessantly and having constant photos taken of me was not my favorite part of being in China. In fact, as someone who is in general not a big fan of attention, and even less so at the time, it made me distinctly uncomfortable for the first week. But over time, I got used to it and just decided to think of it as a learning/growing opportunity on both ends.
I’m not going to tell you how to feel. In my own research prior to my program, I saw a few blogs by people who felt highly offended by people wanting to take photos of them; some likened it to being treated like animals in a zoo. I won’t say that feeling like that is invalid or incorrect. However, personally, I’d attribute most of my experiences to honest, unabashed curiosity on their parts. A lot of people in China had never seen a black person in real life before meeting me, as they told me themselves.
Tourists at the Forbidden City from another part of China; they were so excited to meet their first “laowai,” I was so excited to have a real conversation with locals.
Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, it’s hard for me to fathom reaching an adult age without ever seeing someone of another race. But once I learned that this really was the lived experience of many people in China, it was easy to see how it might lead to the extreme reactions I received. So once I made a kind of paradigm shift, I no longer felt all that bothered by the attention.
In fact, I gradually began to see the humor in the situation. Some people would do the most absurd things that I felt hard-pressed to react any other way. When you’re waiting in the mass of people by the elevator in the Shanghai Space Needle and the woman in front of you tries her best to take a sly selfie with you in the background, you basically have three options: engage, ignore, or move away. My reaction was to step forward, smile, and put up the characteristic peace sign. And when the woman noticed me and laughed, my internal monologue shifted from an incredulous “Really?” to simply finding it funny.
Don’t let the stares keep you down.
In hindsight, I actually really appreciate all these experiences and attribute them to helping me break out of my shell. I was really shy up to this point, and even though I’d started opening up even before this program, I think the constant, intense exposure ended up being the best thing for me.
In China, I was often in situations where all eyes really were on me, and where I had no idea what people might be thinking (especially because they were speaking in a language I didn’t fully understand). However, after making it out alive, I can say that it actually really helped reduce my anxiety in general, and helped me realize that it often really doesn’t matter what people are thinking about you—unexpectedly, I think it was a great way for me to shed a lot of self-consciousness and insecurity.
The one thing I did find a little disconcerting was having to defend my American-ness, because it wasn’t something I’d ever expected to do. But I have hope that over time Americans of all different backgrounds will be better represented in general, and I like to think that my time in China was a small part of that change (a later study abroad program I went on specifically instructed all their participants to act as “ambassadors of goodwill,” and I think that’s a good way to think of it).
In fact, I think more people going abroad is one of the best ways for that to happen, so I’d definitely encourage anyone to do so—as long as they’re willing to keep an open mind. I loved my time in China, all the ups and even the few downs, and I hope that race won’t deter anyone from having a potentially transformative experience.