STOP & STARE : Adventures of A Black Girl in China
“Imagine me, this black Ghanaian-American girl with my hair in my [protective style] Senegalese twist, hype as hell to be traveling to Asia for the first time in my life…..I notice that for some reason I have become the main attraction or maybe it’s something on my face, oh wait nah it’s me and the color of my skin and that’s what they are staring at.”
Duration Abroad: Shanghai, China: January- June 2015 & Dalian, China: June-August 2016
When I first started studying Mandarin in college I had no idea it was opening a door for me to discover and experience such a rich and immense history and culture I barely had knowledge about.
My thoughts before I traveled to China for the first time: I’m doing something different and studying abroad in China, and it’s going to be amazing!
Once I got there [and not even 24 hours later]: I am in a country where I hardly know the language and I stick out like a sore thumb. This is not a vacation for a few weeks, I am going to be living and studying here for the next five months….WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF IN TO?
This is my story about BEING BLACK IN CHINA:
Imagine me, this black Ghanaian-American girl with my hair in my [protective style] Senegalese twist, hype as hell to be traveling to Asia for the first time in my life. I am roaming around Shanghai with my classmates amazed by all the history, the beautiful architecture of temples and gardens, impressed by the different types of cuisines that come from so many corners of the nation, and amazed by the amount of people in a single Chinese city. I am an outsider in a homogenous society and as I am taking all of this in, I notice that for some reason I have become the main attraction or maybe it’s something on my face, oh wait nah it’s me and the color of my skin and that’s what they are staring at. It’s one thing when people do a double take to look at me, it’s another when they openly stare, talk about me, or start taking pictures and touching me without my permission. What would you do in this situation? Cause I didn’t know whether to laugh or run back to the airport and get the first flight back to the States.
At first, it made me angry and I found myself constantly annoyed, but as my time in China wore on I became more comfortable with the language and was able to communicate my boundaries. I was also able gain a better understanding of my interaction with Chinese natives. I believe there are many dimensions to why they act with giddiness and uninhibited interest when they see black people and other people of color: they have been closed off from the world for so long and their only image of black people is painted by the Westerner world, which often paints black people in a negative light [please note this is a VERY summarized take on my view and there could be a whole ‘nother blog post dedicated this issue]. Taking that into consideration I found my fear easing away and decided to find humor in the interactions that had previously ticked me off. When people decided they were going to approach me and ASK for a picture, I used my language ability to joke around with them like saying “你想照片吗？你需要给我二十块！” Translation: Oh, you want a picture? You need to give me 20 Renminbi (Chinese money). Sometimes people would ask for a picture of me and I would pretend I didn’t understand, take their cameras and start taking pictures of them. Chinese people loved it, and it would lead to me getting into really long conversations, where halfway through they would overestimate my Mandarin-speaking ability and start using vocabulary and grammar I had never learned before.
My first experience in China did not scare me away, the following year I jumped on an opportunity to return and I was much more prepared and comfortable for this experience. Although it was different in every way, this time I lived with a host family, the program only permitted me to speak Chinese and I was in a less westernized city; I challenged myself to try absolve the negative stereotypes I had abroad. My second time around I hardly noticed the stares I got and if I wasn’t in class, I was really concerned with where I was gonna go eat.
Y’all food is sooooooo GOOOD and CHEAP in China and it got spice and flavor. No lie, I could eat hand-pulled noodles all day everyday if I could get them.
Often people ask me if I will ever live in China. And my answer is usually no, but I can’t wait to go back. I just can’t imagine myself living there, but I really do love the language, people, food and the culture. I want to return as often as I canif possible and get a front row seat to the rapidly changing nation that never ceases to fascinate me.
Abena Amoakuh, Washington, DC
Follow Abena on Instragram ! : @abeanmocha