AFTER BEING THRUST INTO A FRENZIED WORLD of TEFL preparation, Chinese courses, and lesson planning, I counted down to the only vacation day during teacher training. Our ‘vacation’ turned out to be a field trip for the students in our Oral English camp. However, we were offered the incredible opportunity to tour the city of Zhuhai for my favorite price—> free.
Our first stop was the Goddess of Zhuhai. As I stood snapping photos of the statue, I can’t remember how long it took me to realize that all the people standing near me were not taking photos of the statue. They were taking pictures of me. As soon as I consented to taking one picture, the floodgates opened and I spent the rest of my time taking pictures with Chinese tourists. Some squealed with excitement. Some screamed in fear.
DUE IN LARGE PART TO MEDIA INFLUENCES, Chinese people tend to be more familiar with white foreigners. In fact, it is widely understood that many Chinese prefer white, blonde, blue-eyed foreigners. One friend, a white-male who has now lived in Shenzhen for five years, tried to ease me into the racial climate. “It’s not like America where racism is largely extinct. Chinese people are racist. At my school, parents complained that a Black foreign teacher couldn’t teach their children real English.”
His comments sent chills down my spine not because of the Black teacher’s experience, but because he confidently asserted that racism was largely extinct in the United States. When I think about the recent cases of blatant racism involving Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and John Crawford my heart is torn asunder. When we claim that racism no longer exists, we fail to recognize the lived experience of American minorities.
THIS IS A PERFECT PLACE TO CLARIFY A COMMON MISCONCEPTION. Racism describes actions. Prejudice describes feelings. If we stick to the definition of racism as a majority group’s ability to exert its power to systematically disadvantage a minority group—the word racist simply doesn’t apply to many of the individuals you would encounter in the ethnically homogenous China. Their unfounded beliefs about Blacks are quickly relinquished once they actually interact with a Black person. This is in stark contrast to America where racism is interwoven in the history of our nation, and is therefore much more difficult to combat.
While I wouldn’t call Chinese people racists, many definitely have staunch racial prejudices. For this reason, being Black in China is no walk in the park. I am one of two foreign teachers assigned to my elementary school. During our faculty picture day, they placed the blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreign teacher next to the Headmaster. The photographer, then turned to me and said “Maybe you stand over there,” gesturing to a position further down the row.
I LIVE MY LIFE WITH COMPASSION by recognizing where others are in their own journey towards understanding. As I read Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words, I can’t hold back the admiration I have for a country that is now a competitive world power when just less than 40 years ago its people were banned from reading most books during the Cultural Revolution. The same way Yu Hua described his hunger to read when he was finally able to get his hands on foreign literature is the same way many Chinese people are hungry to learn from someone new.
Yes, it’s pretty annoying when people snap pictures of me when I’m struggling to use chopsticks to eat my meal. It’s also really annoying when people run their hands through my hair without warning. Yet, I understand that their actions are fueled by curiosity—not hate. On the other hand, I am not tragically colored nor will I expend energy trying to be the consummate Black foreigner. Instead, I will focus on being the truest and highest version of myself. If that changes the opinions of some Chinese people for the better then so be it.
I could barely scratch the surface of this issue in one post, but I’m looking forward to a great discussion. Let me know what you think!