Being Black in China

I live in Beijing, China. I’m a natural-haired, black woman. I don’t ever put my natural hair in weave, or braids. It’s usually kept out, because I like letting it breathe.

I often get asked about my experience living in China. Here’s three of the most frequently asked questions:

Are there black people there?

Yes, there are a lot of black people living here. Some are here, visiting friends and travelling around the country. Most of the black people I’ve run into here have emigrated, and have made lives here.
It’s interesting to see black people of any nationality here, hanging out with the locals, and speaking Chinese. There are a lot of students that travelled to China to study in college, and even in International Baccalaureate schools.
However, China is very Chinese. By that, I mean that there are still many, many more Chinese people in the country than there are black people. Black people are like a raindrop in a vast ocean of Chinese people. So yes, there are lots of black people here, but depending on where you are in the country, you may be hard pressed to find any.

Are They Racist

This is a hard question. Usually, I only get this question from Americans. In the mind of an American, racism is like this tangible concept of evil. It’s not that simple in reality though. That question is crazy loaded.

Picture a neat little spectrum with these questions:
*LEFT* Do I get bothered by stuff they do and say, related to my skin color?
*RIGHT* Do they align themselves with racist white people who are descendants of slave owners?

Well, the people I’ve come in contact with are definitely nowhere near the right side of the spectrum. Most people I’ve come in contact with are either not on the scale at all, or are somewhere on the left.

Here’s a few of the things that have been said or done:

Stares–People have stared at me A LOT. I’m pretty sure that if I got a penny for every time I’ve been stared at here, I’d be a millionaire. Yeah, it’s that bad. The stares are mostly blank. I chop it off to people not being told it’s impolite to stare at strangers.
Some stares are filled with shock though, and these are mostly from the reeeaally country people who venture into the city.
I’ve gotten a couple mean stares, (like scrunched nose, and squinted eyes), most of these people also wore glasses though. So I’m not sure if they just couldn’t see, or were confused or just mean. Either way, I squinted back at them.
Pictures–Most people would think this is harmless. I’m one of them, but it can be overwhelming. I’ve only had two people actually ask me for pictures (I think I’ve caught some people take pictures on the sly). These people are usually from the country, and want some memorabilia from a ‘foreigner’ to show to their friends and family back home that they’ve been to the city.
Assumptions--While this has nothing to do with my race, it has to do with the idea that foreigners don’t know anything about China. If you don’t speak Chinese, they’ll also assume you don’t know the history. It’s mostly harmless, but can get pretty annoying.
Phrases/speech—So, a lot of people don’t understand the distinction between darker, and black. One day, I was walking with my female coworkers and they were hiding their faces. I asked why, and one of them said, “because I am afraid of the sun. I don’t want to be black.”
This was pretty hilarious to me, but the woman apologized profusely, even when I told her it’s okay.
Another example: another close female colleague was describing our manager. I only knew his English name, and she only knew his Chinese name. She described him by saying, “He’s tall. And he is the one who is blacker than me.”
Once again, I died. But no one really found it amusing. She too, profusely apologized.

Another example: During lunch, we were talking about travelling, and how they often travel to Africa. A colleague asked if I had ever been to Nigeria. Except, he didn’t pronounce it right, and stuttered a lot. This is what I heard: “…nigg-er…niggeriuh….nigeriuh.” This wasn’t amusing. I didn’t get angry though, I helped him, “Nigeria.” And he nodded enthusiastically. After that, I found it amusing, and told the story to my friends.

Another example:
A colleague came up to me, while I was at my desk, and asked about the States, and the ongoing problem with police brutality. We talked for a little, and then he suddenly asked me about the difference between the two N words and the word ‘black.’ He was under the impression that saying ‘black’ to refer to ‘black’ people was offensive.
And yes, he said the hard ‘r.’ I was startled, but completely unbothered. I was happy to educate him on the uses of both words, and why the word with the hard ‘r’ is offensive to many black people.

So what these four instances taught me is this: they mean well, but don’t really understand what is ‘racially insensitive’ and what’s not. Because of that, they’re bound to make mistakes when they’re unaware, and bound to think they made mistakes, when they didn’t.

Is it hard finding make-up, hair products, etc?

YES. Although, being in a big city like Beijing is way better than being in a small town, or village. Remember the African population I talked about up there? Well, a lot of them own salons, so for all of your hair needs, just find out where your fellow black people go.

Make up is extremely hard. I searched around for a bit, before I finally found ONE store that had TWO shades of brown. Major shout outs to Make Up Forever–the real mvp’s!

It felt like Christmas. Although, the darkest shade of brown they had was my skin tone: copper-ish. So for the melanin-rich ladies, I have no idea where to find it. Once again, try asking at an African owned salon. They may know.

Another thing that I learned during my time here, is that I’m not just a black person. I’m also American. This has been the source of most of the really frustrating exchanges I’ve had. So, I’d say, be a little less concerned with you being black and travelling, and more concerned with being American and travelling. Because American culture exists in a vacuum, it’s not a universal language that everyone speaks. So, prepare for that.

2 thoughts on “Being Black in China”

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