Traveling while Black, whether it’s educational travel like study abroad or just for leisure, is a unique experience that can be rewarding or quite frustrating, depending on your outlook. In a place like China that has had limited interactions with countries with large ethnically African populations, it’s not everyday that residents get to see people from other parts of the world. Your dark skin, textured hair, and round facial features may be intriguing to Chinese people, particularly older ones from the rural areas.
This past week, two of my long-time college friends came to visit me in China, both Black, one a second-generation Nigerian-American. My friends and I caused quite a commotion in Inner Mongolia. It also happened again in the Forbidden City.
In Beijing, we were strolling in the palace courtyard when suddenly we were surrounded by a group of elderly Chinese residents. They had abandoned their tour guide and formed a circle around us. And for several minutes, they blatantly stared us down from head to toe.
If I could give advice to Black travelers going to China, I would say first and foremost, always travel with an open mind. Throughout your experience, there is a good chance you’ll come across situations that you may find frustrating at times. Keep in mind that you’re in a different country, that has its own customs, norms, values, traditions, and ways of social interaction. Some of those differences may severely contrast with those of your home country. However, don’t let your assumptions about a place interfere with your ability to adapt and assimilate to your new location. It is always difficult to assimilate into a new environment but ultimately will breed some of your best experiences. So, roll with the punches and do as the locals do.
Additionally, I would advise that travelers always give strangers the benefit of the doubt. Traveling throughout China as a Black person, it is inevitable that you will come across locals who have never seen or interacted with a person like you. They may be touchy, curious about the texture of your hair, and will make comments referring to your skin. And you will be asked to take a ton of pictures.
While being a spectacle may come off as harassment, exoticism, or prejudice, but there’s a good chance their curiosity is not out of malice or willful ignorance, but navigate from a lack of exposure to others like you. So, while it may be bothersome having to explain that there are, for instance, Black people in America, and being asked to scores of pictures, try your best to lean into the situation. See it as an opportunity to reshape perceptions of Black people, and educate them in ways that you can. Ultimately, I believe you get out what you put in. Coming with a receptive and positive attitude will open up windows of opportunity to learn from and make a real impact on Chinese people.
Authored by: Kamaal Thomas