On She Goes

Speaking Mandarin in Melanin

Being Black in China

Layla A. Reaves
Layla A. Reaves
May 15, 2017
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This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. 

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I packed my bags and braved the 7,000-mile journey from Detroit, Michigan, to China. Although I was called crazy by friends and family, it didn’t hit me until I stood in line to board the plane: I would be living in China for a month. Previously I’d only been out of the country to visit my stepdad’s homeland of Jamaica, where we stayed at a lovely tropical resort for a week. But China would certainly be different from English-speaking, brown-face-filled Jamaica. And this time I was alone. As I scanned the long line of passengers, none of whom looked like me, the reality of my friends’ and family’s apprehension began to set in: Black people don’t go to China.

“We need someone to attend this study abroad program,” my Chinese professor had told me a month before. “We want you to go. The school will pay for the program and reimburse the cost of the flight.” I was honored to be selected for such an opportunity and my excitement spilled everywhere, but my loved ones couldn’t share my enthusiasm. Instead they were worried and confused. They asked: why would you want to go there? It’s so different. What if you get kidnapped? Can you even speak Chinese?

I’d tried to explain my decision to study abroad with the same reasons I had for studying Mandarin as my foreign language requirement. It was a change, an adventure, and a welcome departure from the norm. I’d always wanted to study abroad, and here was my opportunity to do so at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. There was so much more to the world than the United States, and I was going to find out all about it, Black skin and all. My experience in China was uniquely colored by my Black womanhood, and here are some of the lessons I learned.

photo by Layla Reaves, center

Embrace your unicorn horn.

I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder. I turned and an old Chinese man pointed at his camera, gesturing as if to say, “Can you take a picture for me?” I nodded and went to grab his camera to take the photo when suddenly he pulled me in, sandwiching me between him and his wife. With a big smile, he handed his camera off to another person and the three of us posed for a picture.

No amount of preparation, short of being a celebrity, will prepare you for this. As a Black woman, especially if you wear a natural hairstyle, you are seen as a unicorn. Outside of major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, foreigners are such a rare sight that some locals aren’t shy about asking for pictures.

I realize that everyone might not welcome this attention, as was the case of my Black girlfriend who was also in the program. She’d shy away and conveniently disappear whenever onlookers would approach me. If it’s not for you, don’t hesitate to say a curt “bu shi” (a.k.a. no, I don’t want to take a pic with a total stranger, thanks).

At first, I was not feeling the stares and pictures at all. Near the end of my trip, I’d adjusted because I’d changed my perspective. I stopped thinking that Chinese people were making a mockery of me like I was a curiosity in a zoo. They weren’t afraid of me. They didn’t hesitate to touch me (unfortunately). They smiled at me and didn’t grimace. For the first time in my life I realized I was simply different, not someone to be feared.

Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

There were towers full of karaoke rooms. Cartons of milk sat in the aisle at room temperature. Babies pooped in the street. Live frogs hopped in front of street vendors, waiting to be cooked on the spot. Everything was so different, and it was something I needed to adjust to.

I was lucky enough to study with another Black girl, but beside her, I saw maybe four other Black people throughout that whole month. I stared at a Black man that I passed in a Carrefour shop like I was Chinese, too. I smiled longingly at fellow Black tourists at the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven.

I longed for familiarity. I missed my culture and its societal norms. I was tired of everything being so darn different! And I especially missed the sound of English, sweet, sweet English.

When homesickness threatened to bring me down, I leaned on the support of my friends in the program. We were all going through the culture shock of our lives, experiencing China for the first time together. I don’t know how I would have managed without them. It really helped to be able to talk to someone who was going through the exact same thing, as opposed to family and friends back home. Get you some friends who can really understand your homesickness and the feelings of living in a new place.

Chopsticks diet . . . or not.

After landing in China, I realized quickly that American Chinese food is not the Chinese food of China. I should have known when my first Chinese professor said “What?!?” in genuine surprise each time a student told him her favorite Americanized Chinese food.

Still, I was a tad upset when there was none of my beloved soy sauce in sight to douse my rice with. One of the program counselors, a local Chinese student, thought it was hilarious that soy sauce and duck sauce came in tiny packets and that we ate “Chinese food” out of white take-out cartons. Luckily, my favorite lunch lady learned my order and would put a little bowl of soy sauce on my tray just for me.

I passed on curiosities like frog legs and fried quail eggs on a stick, but surprised myself by trying Peking duck and plucking from a gigantic, roasted fish. Overall, the food was delicious, but I mostly stuck to my hei jiao ji pi, black pepper chicken with vegetables and fried rice. The Chinese know how to season!

Mastering the use of chopsticks was another matter. I almost gave up. I picked up so little food with chopsticks that I thought I might end up dieting by accident!

I practiced using chopsticks diligently, in and out of the cafeteria, and by the end of the month, my practice paid off. I could eat just as fast as with silverware. I was even complimented on my chopsticks skills a few times. I ended up gaining weight while I was abroad. But don’t be afraid to ask for silverware if it comes down to it, because you’ve got to eat! Using chopsticks is a learned skill, so don’t be ashamed if you’re not a chopsticks pro like me.

Speaking Mandarin in melanin.

A simple hello, “Ni hao,” may cause people to excitingly engage you in Mandarin, firing off words at a mile a minute. It’s a shock for many Chinese people because there are so few Black people who speak Mandarin. It’s just not a common thing.

During a field trip to the Dragon Boat Festival where we watched long boats race, a woman approached me, the lone Black girl, out of two dozen students. She greeted me, and when I responded she proceeded to go off in incomprehensible Tianjin Mandarin. She was talking. I just nodded and smiled. Luckily, a near-fluent student picked up on the “conversation” and translated for us. Apparently, she rambled about her baby and how she liked my skin and hair.

Toward the end of my stay there, I was delighted when the school janitor gave me his monologue, having watched me enter the building for weeks. I could understand about 60%–75% of what he was saying! He praised me for learning Mandarin and said they don’t get many students like me. I got the sense that most Chinese people really appreciated foreigners taking the time to learn Mandarin and to learn about Chinese culture. That’s where the excitement comes from—seeing the effort. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you should just try.

The only thing to fear is taxis!

The pedestrian does not have the right-of-way. You will get run over if you don’t move quickly. All jokes aside, the only thing I feared in China was the traffic. Racism was a big worry for me, but I didn’t feel any hostility because of my skin color.

I stayed on a big college campus full of young, open-minded 20-somethings who studied alongside many foreign exchange students. I think this positively affected my experience because while on campus, I got almost zero stares and no picture requests. Discrimination against foreigners is definitely not unheard of and it’s a bit expected because China is very racially homogenous.

I imagine it’s a lot different for solo travelers or travel groups staying in local places. My mom e-mailed me links to several newspaper articles about discrimination in China to scare me out of going. I recall one being about male African students who were attacked by a group of Chinese men because they had too many parties with only Chinese women. I read my own share of blogs by Black travelers who’d been to China that detailed a range of negative and positive experiences, mostly about being uncomfortable with all the attention and the lack of cleanliness.

Aside from the stares and the photos, I did hear “hei ren,” the term for Black people, a couple of times, but that was it. Now, if you hear a word that sounds like the N-word, it’s not what you think. “Na ge,” pronounced nah-guh or nay-guh depending on the city, is an article that means “that one” and is quite often used as a filler word, like “umm.”

In terms of safety, just practice the awareness that you do at home and while traveling.

I treasure my time spent in China. It was not the scary, dangerous place that some media had led me to believe. Chinese people were warm, friendly, and curious. Their culture is as rich as their massive land. I, a Black girl, spent a month there and not only did I survive, China enchanted me and made me promise to visit her again. China taught me to never again let worries over my race get in the way of exploring new lands. It gave me the confidence to continue to fulfill my dreams of seeing what else is out there beyond the United States. Black girls, fear cannot be your excuse to not spread your magic over this vast country. After all, fans are waiting to take pictures with you!