A year ago, almost to the day, I took my talents to China — The Red Dragon. You’ve heard the stories about how weird (by western standards) things can be in the Big C. Some are true, some are made up, most are probably somewhere in between. Experiencing a country as different from the west as China is tricky for foreigners. But navigating China as a chocolate fella, well, let’s just say … things can get pretty interesting in a hurry.
NOTE: To any potential critics. The views in this post are strictly my own, shaped by my life experience. Some people may have entirely different and warranted views of the black experience in China and they’re entitled to that. This is an opinion piece, written in hopes of enlightening and sharing some of the quirks of living in China as a (black) foreigner. Do not take my word as law, get up and visit China yourself. Never take another person’s experience as the only experience to be had in a new country, especially not one as vast as China.
China, without question, was the hardest country I’ve navigated as a traveller.
A hasty (but rewarding) decision to work abroad (see Montreal To China: How I Started Travelling), 24 hours of flight/transit time and 2 suitcases later, and I had arrived. Moment of honesty; by the time I stepped off the plane in Beijing before connecting to Harbin, the thought had crossed my mind, “What the hell am I doing?”
As I walked through Shuangcheng (don’t bother googling this place), a small (by Chinese standards), farming town on the outskirts of Harbin—my spirits plummeted lower and lower, “So you’re off to a rough start, no big deal.” I tried to convince myself. I arrived at the school where I’d be teaching English for the next year, and was greeted by what at the time, was the most AWKWARD (little did I know) moment I’d ever experienced.
Shocked, nervous, scared faces stared back at me for what seemed like 10 lifetimes. Pointing, laughter, and conversations in hushed tones began almost immediately.
Looking around then, I had no clue that those reactions would be my everyday reality for the next 12 months. See, as a man of chocolate, I have certain physical traits that made me stand out in China more than Kanye West would at a Taylor Swift concert. Here’s a quick run down:
SIZE MATTERS: Before leaving Canada, I was what gym goers and fitness types called a gym rat. I ate, slept and breathed the gym. I had 8 meals a day with snacks in between, lifted heavy weights and was bulky for someone who naturally has a slender frame. I weighed 200 pounds and looked like a muscular 215. Suffice to say I was much bigger than the average Chinese man (pun not intended, you little pervert you!)
HIGH FIVE: Being tall was such a point of focus in my Chinese interactions that one of the first things I learned in Mandarin Chinese was “Ni duo gao” (How tall are you) and “yi bai jiu shi san limi” (193 cm/6’4”). The obvious height difference didn’t do me any favours in terms of blending into the Chinese environment. This led to obvious questions of “do you play basketball?” “Can you dunk?” “What other dunks can you do?” “Do you know you look like Kobe (Kuh-bee)/Kevin Garnett (Kaiwen Jianeituh)/LeBron James (Luh Bulang Zhianmusi) or Kevin Durant (Kaiwen Dulan Te)?”
MANDARIN CHINESE PRONUNCIATION NOTE: Ang = Ahng, Zh = J (sound), Si = Suh, E = Uh.
As talented as those NBA stars are, I look nothing like them.
At least once a week, I was stopped by a much shorter, smiling old Chinese man, eyes bulging out of his head in bewilderment, and a hand gesturing as high as humanly possible (for him). That’s nonverbal Chinese for “Whoa, how tall are you young man?” Every time I answered, they’d respond with “Veh-wee goouuddaahh,” if their English was sharp, or the more traditional (Hen Hao/very good/well) in Mandarin. My height seemed to mesmerize the Chinese everywhere I went.
THE EASTER BUNNY IS REAL: I can say this with certainty after spending a year in northeast China. How do I know? Because it’s me, or at least that’s how I was looked at because of my velvety smooth, chocolate complexion. My skin tone was so mind-blowing to my students that they remixed my name to “Qiaokeli Laoshi,” chocolate teacher, or just chocolate for short. I say this in all sincerity, I remember every single black person I saw in China in the past 12 months. I’d love to say it was because of my genius powers of retention, but in fact it was simply because I saw so few (less than 30).
Those were the main factors that drew in all the stares, comments and an endless stream of requests (or blatant non-requests) for photos and autographs. I was asked to take pictures with babies no older than a few months, elderly people who may very well have taken their last breaths after seeing me, girlfriends, group shots, you name it. Being black in China was like being a B or C class celebrity with even less money.
I’m certain this happens to foreigners of different races as well. After all, freckles, red or blond hair, and different colour eyes are as peculiar to the Chinese as my chocolate coated skin. This happens much more in China’s less popular cities (Harbin being one of them). I was shouted at, stopped, followed, chased, and pulled almost violently, just for a picture. Not a day went by that I went into work and didn’t have a student reach out to pinch my beard, hair or glide their fingers across my skin. I did manage to convince many of my youngest students (4-5 year olds), that I was in fact made of real chocolate (gotta love how gullible kids can be).
I won’t lie to you, on some days, I loved it. Posing for pictures, having dozens of conversations in Chenglish (yes, this is a real thing), making friends and many other experiences that I actively seek out during my travels. On other days, I couldn’t imagine how nightmarish I must’ve looked after stopping to pose for the hundredth picture of the day, being tugged, asked questions and not understanding, pointed at, laughed at and photographed or filmed without my consent. If I could’ve bought a functional invisibility cloak a la Harry Potter, I’d have bought at least 20. It was at times difficult to do simple things like groceries, or have a quiet meal alone.
If you’re black (or non Asian in appearance) and considering visiting or moving to China (it can be very lucrative and it’s a hell of an experience), here are a few lessons that I’d like to pass on to you.
TECHNOLOGY IS YOUR FRIEND: Language apps and location finding apps are essential to navigating the Chinese landscape and getting out of sticky situations. Learning Mandarin is tough, but certainly helps a great deal if you have the patience to see your lessons through. For a list of great apps to use while traveling, see my post on 39 Mobile Apps That Make Travel Easier Here are some of the Chinese language apps I use.
RACISM IS ALIVE AND WELL IN CHINA: The Chinese have a “special” idea of racism. They think it’s largely a western problem. They have a simple thought process when it comes to racism “If everyone is Chinese, how could there be racism?” While in China, you’ll see and hear openly racist jokes, questions, statements. You’ll see skin “treatment,” “beauty,” or cosmetic clinics solely dedicated to lightening a person’s skin tone. Whitening creams can be found in every pharmacy. China is racist, largely out of ignorance. It’s race relations with other countries are very young. China maintains extremely high censorship of external information by blocking hundreds of international websites and platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Google etc). The Chinese population doesn’t have access to the same amount and kind of information about the world that many western countries have. So to be fair, China is no worse than many other countries. I will say this, I’ve been treated better as a black man in China than I have been in North America, no contest.
NOTE: For the chocolate fellas who date or who are thought to be in a romantic relationship with Chinese women; some Chinese men, especially in their 20s and 30s are more than willing to pick fights with you because of the lady on your arm. This is a tricky situation that I strongly suggest walking away from if at all possible. First, Chinese guys don’t do one on one fights, they do group brawls with beer bottles, chairs, tables and anything else they can grab. If you’re alone, you’re done for. If this happens, the police will offer little to no assistance, because you aren’t Chinese. Second, you can get fined, jailed, deported, hurt, banned from China or all five, fighting is a crime. Third, the Triads aren’t some Chinese gang from the movies, they’re very real in China and you never know who you’re messing with.
YOU DON’T HAVE HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: You’re not at home anymore. Learn as much about the culture and country as possible before arriving. It makes visiting, living and experiences much more enjoyable and way less stressful. As a rule of thumb, when I travel, I try to be as local as possible in my behaviour, mannerism, eating habits etc. It will help you appreciate whichever culture you are experiencing, China is no exception to this rule.
THICK SKIN AND PATIENCE: If you don’t already have these personality traits, start working on them, or do not go to China. You will be asked the same questions repeatedly, in Chinese of course. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” “Why are you here?” “Are you American?” “Are you African?” “Are you English” “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?” “Can you teach me English?” You get the picture. I repeat, you will be pointed at, laughed at, photographed, filmed, harassed and more. Most of this will not be with ill intent, but will weigh on you nonetheless. But don’t be fooled, some of it will be mocking your appearance or your failed attempts at speaking their language. Get over it.
HEIGHTENED CULTURAL AWARENESS: Visiting China will make you reconsider your own habits and actions when back at home. I disliked when people assumed I was from somewhere I wasn’t actually from because the cultural differences were always extreme, IE: Canada – U.S.A – England – Africa. In China, the assumption is that black people are American or African, nothing else. If you don’t like those assumptions, don’t assume all Asians are Chinese. Don’t like having your picture taken? It’ll happen a bunch in China. If you’re in the habit of doing that in your country, you may think twice about it after returning from China.
YOU WILL FEEL EMPOWERED AS AN INDIVIDUAL: Being a black foreigner in a place as visibly non-black as China is the perfect opportunity to teach people about your culture. You can directly contribute to breaking down hurtful stereotypes about being black. It’s very easy to stand out as an individual as a black person in China. The country is still very traditional and values the collective over the individual. Aside from breaking laws, be yourself, because you sure can’t be Chinese.
THE CHINESE ARE NOT SHY PEOPLE: I found there was one exception to the “white is right” way of mind in China: attractiveness. If you’re perceived to be handsome or beautiful, even as a black man or woman, you will be treated better than many other foreigners (even more so if you speak a bit of Chinese). China is superficial in that sense. Also, many people will not hesitate to stop you and compliment you on your appearance. This can at times be tiring, but it’s great for self-esteem. Black foreign teachers, no matter how attractive, are not given certain teaching jobs because of their skin. Some schools flat out do not offer jobs to black people.
THE STORM CALMS EVENTUALLY: Although the storm in this sense is a recurring one, once you tell a Chinese person what they want to know about you, they’ll leave you alone and go about their lives as though you never existed. A large part of the Chinese reactions to blacks are based on shock value. “Oh my God, a black person,” okay bye. It’s as easy as that, if you can weather the storm and even befriend a few Chinese people. In my experience, they are some of the most generous, welcoming and caring friends you can have.
If you’re wondering, “Man, why’d you go to China?” Or “Why’d you stay an entire year?” The answer on my end is simple. I wasn’t completely fulfilled before I left my cushy job, car, family and friends in Canada for China. I’m still not. I wanted something different. I still do. I acted on impulse, because I’m young, dumb and wanted a new experience. Above all else, I wanted a challenge. I needed to see if I could hack it on my own in a vastly different world. And I did. I’ve won trophies, awards and accolades in school, sports and work. Finishing a year on my own in China is by far the toughest thing I’ve experienced mentally and emotionally in my entire life (talk about feeling alone in a crowd). Culture shock is real. Homesickness is real. Loneliness is real. But you know what? Today, I’m a better man because of the hardships I faced in China. It was a crash course in manhood. In the words of the great philosopher Marshawn Lynch, “I’m thankful.”
You don’t have to pack your life up and head to a farm town in China to find yourself or become a better you. That was part of my journey, you have your own waiting for you, maybe in China, maybe in another country, maybe right where you are at home. But no matter if you stay or go, what matters most, is the journey inward.
Interested in teaching in China? Read this: The Ultimate Guide To Teaching In China
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PS: The videos in this post are not mine. They are a made to highlight the black experience in China (and they’re hilarious!)
Until next time,