I chose to visit China for a few reasons: First, I like to travel. Second, one of my closest friends is Chinese and I wanted to see what his city looked like.
But when I told my friends and family that I was visiting China, I got mixed reactions. From “Don’t forget to take a mask with you to help with the pollution,” to “I hear China is super racist and anti-black.”
Being black in China was very confusing. I knew I was going to be hypervisible. I expected that people would be curious about me, mostly because of the colour of my skin. Not to mention my hair.
I am not entirely sure what it is about a black woman in braids that draws people in. Wandering around Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the country, numerous staff complimented my hair. I’d never met such friendly airport security in my life. Compliments in China were short and didn’t pry (unlike what I hear in the United States and Canada: “It must take so long to braid,” “You do it yourself? Amazing,” “Do you wash it?” and so on).
What surprised me was that Chinese curiosity came with such politeness and grace, which is not always the case back home. At first, I didn’t notice that people were taking pictures of me until my friend pointed it out. I say this somewhat sarcastically, but people were discreet in their photo taking. Or maybe I was just too preoccupied taking in the sights, sounds and smells to notice cameras. After spending four days in Wuhan with my friend, it became easier to spot the subtle camera action. I oddly got used to it.
Something I did not get used to was hearing people gasp whenever they saw me. I was on a bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Southern China, when it made a pit stop in a tiny village for passengers to pick up fruit and other snacks. At first, I stayed on the bus while every other passenger got off. But then I changed my mind. And when I stepped off the bus, I never heard so many gasps in my life. A few women walked up close and just stared at me for a few minutes without saying anything. They eventually said, “Hi,” smiled broadly, gave me a thumbs up, and walked away. This was a recurring scene during my trip. Another group of women walked up to me at the snack shop, stared, smiled, and asked where I was from in broken English. Everywhere I went, people smiled and said hello. I found this level of friendliness, despite language barriers, impressive.
Before I arrived in China, I was concerned about what sort of preconceived notions people would have based on my skin tone. China turned out to be a lesson in human kindness. In the city of Kunming, when I got lost, two young women did not just take me to the train station, they stood with me in line for over two hours to make sure I got my ticket. The only words we exchanged were “Hi,” “Oh my God” and, after I got my ticket, “thank you” and “bye.” I never saw them again.
When I got to Shangri-La in the northwest Yunnan province late on a Sunday evening, the owner of the bed and breakfast I was staying at graciously invited me to dinner with her family. She didn’t want me to go out for food alone. The owner spoke excellent English, introduced me to her family at the table, and then gave me her coat, because I foolishly underestimated how cold Shangri-La would be due to the altitude. It was heartwarming.
That my time in China was filled with immense kindness does not negate the experiences of anti-blackness faced by others. There is no cookie-cutter black travel experience. A few of my black friends had remarkably different experiences in the country, especially with airport security.
Anti-blackness is not only limited to North America. It happens internationally as well. In China, it looks very different than it does in North America . People’s references to my race were mostly based on what they saw on TV and tied to pop-culture images. For instance, black protesters were shown on the news and a young man said to me, “I like your people. They are very strong.” Someone also compared me to Rihanna. I look nothing like her.
Although I am a black woman, I hold a great deal of body privilege: I am tall, slim and fashionable in a conventional way. I believe that the way my body looks affects the way people treat me.
Looking back, I am grateful for my time in China and the lessons learned about the politics of race, identity and intersectionality.