In a way, moving to China after college provided an escape from what felt like the oppressive and other-erasing ubiquity of whiteness. I was still one of only a few blacks, but to the Chinese that made me a novelty. I worked hard at Mandarin and dove deep into Chinese pop culture, history, and arts.
Chinese people were curious about me. Strangers always followed me around, touched, and stared. In fact, I became Olympic gold medal-worthy at staring contests. I knew I was not just there as me, but represented all 37 plus million black Americans. If I had a bad day and didn’t feel like having my picture taken, it didn’t matter; if I was unaccommodating, that Chinese person—never having interacted with a black person before and unlikely to again—may go home and tell their friends, family, and neighbors that black people are rude or unfriendly. So, I smiled for every photo, offered to be in photos with staring bystanders, and tried to represent black people well. I was an ambassador.
When I lived in the Gobi Desert, I had to ride my bike past a field of soldiers on my way to class. Everyday a different group of them would yell out in Chinese, “Look, it’s an African!” and I would yell back, “I’m not African, I’m American.” They would fall to the ground laughing, shocked I could understand them. Learning the language well not only gave me greater access to them but gave them greater access to me.
I’ve read about black tourists in China being put off with the staring, touching, and following. What they’d interpreted as rudeness I saw as curiosity. It’s hard, as Americans, to know what it’s like to see a kind of person you’ve never seen before. It’s akin to how we might react to seeing a purple person walking down the street. I was their purple person.
It was a frequent occurrence that cab drivers would tell me after chatting for a bit that I should find myself a Chinese husband and just stay in China. I asked them if they had any sons. Cue awkward laughter. They knew as well as I that Chinese men did not marry black women. I myself had never seen this pairing. I called it the “golden couple,” in reference to the rare Golden Ticket of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and a friend and I used to text each other any time we saw it. I remember clearly one day in the winter of 2006 sitting in a noodle shop in Xi’an with friends when my Taiwanese-America friend confessed that her parents would disown her if she brought home a black man. Ouch. Two years later, I took advantage of the fact that I taught nearly 300 students, most of whom were male, and took an informal survey in class. Only three male students out of almost 250 said yes. One said he thought ‘yes’ was the right answer, a second said “anything could happen,” and a third, who was a good friend of mine, said “yes, if the person is like you.”
In addition to feeling the burden of representing my people, I became aware of my own privilege. As a double minority—black and female—privilege felt outside of my experience in the US. But living as an American abroad forced me to see how privilege could be at work undetected by its possessor.
After three years in China, I returned to the States. I nestled myself in Asian-American community in Boston, my new home. I went to an Asian-American church and for the first time the majority of my friends were not white. I shared more common interests with these people than I did with most black people, yet they still understood the minority experience, something I felt always needed to be defended or explained to white people. This was a space where I should have felt safe. For the most part, I did. I learned quickly that Asians and Asian Americans differed and while I’d hope to connect with my new friends more over my experience living in Asia, it was an experience not many of them shared.
About a year into my time in Boston, I found myself enticed by a quiz on Facebook: How Asian-American are you? For fun, I decided to take it. The fourth question was, “Are you afraid of black people?”
I can’t explain what that did to me. This was a thing? These were the people I was supposed to be safe around yet they didn’t feel safe around me. They were the last place I could run for acceptance. Where could I belong now?
After two years in Boston, I moved to Seattle for grad school. As a China Studies student, Korean-American church attendee, and Seattle resident, my community was mostly Asian-American again.
As the sole black person in my cohort, I had to do well. I told myself, “Don’t ever let anyone think you got here because you’re black.” I took a second East Asian language and classical Chinese, took a full course load each semester and audited classes on top of that, did a certificate program and was still able to finish a quarter early. I’d felt I had something to prove, and, by the end, that I had proven it.
One day, for one of my classes, I was researching Chinese nationalism at the turn of the 20th century. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been translated into Chinese and was one of the most popular books in the early 1900s. In the introduction, the translator, Lin Shu, had drawn parallels between the slave experience and China’s very recent past. Having just gone through it’s own war with Western countries and been on the receiving end of their oppression and mistreatment, China should have been sympathetic to the black experience. At least, I thought so. My research, however, showed otherwise. In one of my readings, I came across Kang Youwei, a much-admired Chinese intellectual.
“Kang Youwei (1858-1927), one of the most acclaimed philosophers of the late nineteenth century, judged that Africans, ‘with their iron faces, silver teeth, slanting jaws like a pig, front view like an ox, full breasts and long hair, their hands and feet dark black, stupid like sheep or swine’, should be whitened by intermarriage, although he feared that no refined white girl would ever agree to mate with a ‘monstrously ugly black’. ‘Whites’ and ‘yellows’ who married ‘blacks’ as a contribution to the purification of mankind should therefore be awarded a medal with the inscription ‘Improver of the race’, whereas ‘browns or blacks whose characteristics are too bad, whose physical appearance is too ugly or who carry a disease should be given a sterilizing medication to stop the perpetuation of their race.’
My eyes stung. I shut the book. Even the Chinese espoused and celebrated this kind of thought? Yet again I faced this niggling reprise that there was nowhere for me. The world felt a little more lonely. Why would God let any people be held in such universal disregard and why was I one of them?