When I went to China, a Caucasian colleague who lived in Shanghai for several years warned me that I was going to be stared at. She went through it and I would go through it. What she didn’t tell me is that I would really be STARED at. I’ve been to New Zealand where I didn’t see another black person for a solid week. When my mom and I went, some kids looked at us. But, I always thought that had more to do with not being from some of the small towns we visited rather than being black. I’m used to being one of the few black people around. I’m totally not used to double takes.
More often than not I was just stared at. But, I had small children point at me and grab their friend / mother / grandmother. I had people taking cell phone camera pictures of me. At the Forbidden City in Beijing, I had people take pictures near me so they could get me in the background.
I watched my (incredibly sweet and delightful) college-age interpreter touching / rubbing the skin on my knee after I dozed off in the taxi. When she realized I was awake, she said ‘so different’. Totally innocent. But, still kind of annoying.
But, mostly, I had people ask to take pictures with me. A lot. Like, at least twice a day but no more than five times a day every day for 10 days.
This woman brought her child up to me and kept rubbing her skin and touching her hair and pointing at me. That went on for a good five minutes before Elizabeth was like, ‘let’s go’.
Some people were really sweet and would say, “So beautiful!” despite my being in a constant state of sweating for 10 days. I started my trip with being amused by it and happily taking photos and waving back at people who were looking at me. But, by day 10, it was just pretty freaking old. I was pointing and staring back. If they tried to take my photo without my permission I would turn my back or hide my face. And if they did the cell phone camera thing, I would take their picture right back or on my worst day give the finger.
Our interpreters told us that people were saying, ‘foreigners’ in Chinese as we walked by. Which is an interesting concept to me. I say ‘tourists’ when I’m at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore or in DC. I think being a child of immigrants I’ve thought the word ‘foreigner’ as a mean comment. Elizabeth studied in France and we had a whole conversation about the translation and use of the word foreigner. My mom got mad at me when I referred to an occasional date a few years ago ah ‘the Italian’. Well, I really called him ‘the Anti-Semitic Italian’ but that’s another story. Elizabeth also had people ask for her picture. But, we both felt I got the brunt of it. I started calling her ‘the one with Yellow Hair’ .
I understand that over 30,000 Africans were educated in China. With a population of a billion, that’s a drop in the bucket. I know it also speaks to where black people vacation (another cruise to the Caribbean?) but, by the end, I felt a lot like a sideshow. I know it’s not considered rude to stare in China. But, you can’t tell me it’s not considered rude to take someone’s photo without asking. Or pointing. Because every time a kid pointed, their friend / mother / grandmother admonished them.
It’s just a totally homogeneous society, I realize it didn’t come from a bad place but, I’m quite happy not to be stared at anymore.