by Karen Marks (Staff Writer)
When given the opportunity to study Mandarin Chinese intensively for two months at Harvard’s Beijing summer school, with a full Yale fellowship, I was excited. However, as much as I looked forward to spending the summer learning a new language and culture, the experiences of other Black foreigners in China made me hesitant. While I was reminded before each anecdote that everyone’s experience is different!, I also gathered that I would face a daily onslaught of questions about my skin, hair, and nationality from Beijing locals. It would be impossible to avoid strangers taking my photo, or to find skin products without whitening properties. Anecdotes notwithstanding, I packed my bags and got on the plane to Beijing for two months.
A few hours after arriving, my friend suddenly asked me, “Do you feel, like, out of place?”
I realized that I didn’t. Contrary to what I expected, there was no earth-shattering moment where I realized I was Black, the sudden weight of dark skin and kinky hair descending on me. I was used to spaces where I was a minority. Furthermore, Beijing is a fairly international city with plenty of foreigners in the summer months — especially at our foreign language campus.
The longer I spent in China, the more I realized I was treated the same as my white classmates, even in smaller cities or towns. In Beijing, Xi’an, and the mountains of Yan’an alike, locals didn’t comment on my skin or hair. White or Black, we all had the privilege of being seen as cool foreigners in Beijing’s nightlife scene. In fact, my six-foot-tall, blond friend had more photos taken of him than of me or any other Black student in our program. It was sometimes more difficult for me to convince Chinese people I was American, but labelling myself as a Yale student automatically got the point across. Even then, I experienced class without the intersection of race and difficulties of being Black in America. If I had been an African working-class immigrant — or even a black American who didn’t attend what was called a “name brand” university in Mandarin — I might have been treated differently by Beijingers.
One day I made conversation with a store owner as I waited for the batch of cold noodles I’d ordered for lunch. His store was on the way from our university to the dorms, so he was already familiar with the students in our program, often waving at us when we passed by during his smoke break. The conversation eventually turned to American sports. He asked if I was familiar with basketball.
“There are a lot of Black people who play in the NBA,” he said.
Had it been weeks ago, in the beginning of my program, I wouldn’t have reacted well. However, after eight weeks in Beijing, I didn’t find his statement awkward at all. Most people watch domestic television and movies, and on top of that, certain movies and other forms of imported media are censored in China. Football and basketball are usually viewed as quintessential American culture, and those sports also happen to have an abundance of Black players! Even American media tends not to show many people of color, so for someone who didn’t live in the United States and didn’t see Black people on a daily basis — there are indeed a lot of Black people who play in the NBA.
While I can’t call myself an expert on Chinese culture after two months, after this time of language study and navigating Beijing as a Black American, I arrived at the understanding that Chinese culture had to be experienced out of the American lens — including how my race affected me in either country. Separating my new daily experience as a Black woman in China from my previous encounters with systematic racism and microaggressions in America was important. Not only was I able to appreciate China as a nation with a long history and rich culture largely developed without Western influence, but I realized that the burden of Blackness I had expected to take on in Beijing was actually lightened in China.
After returning from Beijing, I have no regrets about attending my summer program, and even wonder at my initial hesitation. After two months, my most outstanding memories of China are not related to my Blackness. They are of learning 1,020 new Chinese characters, getting lost on the Beijing subway, and watching the sunrise in Tiananmen Square after a night out — a foreigner like any other.