By Doyin Oyeniyi
I have never been so aware of the color of my skin as I when I was in China. While my group stood out because we were all clearly foreigners, it’s pretty safe to say that as the only African American I stood out the most. While walking down the street one day, another correspondent turned to me and said, “Yeah, it’s definitely different walking next to you.”
Not everyone stared, but most people did. It didn’t take me long to accept the fact that at any point in time there would be at least one person staring at me. Whether it was the person walking next to me, the cab driver on the street, the people sitting outside their shops or homes, the neighborhood restaurant owner, or the bike rider, someone was always looking. Some looked secretly and some openly, clearly curious. Some even took pictures and videos.
Admittedly, I didn’t always react positively to the stares and some days it was just too much. The babies who stared at me out of utter confusion, or worse, cried if I tried to touch or hold them, only made me feel like I was in a freak show. And while sometimes I was amused when I caught someone taking a picture or video of me, other times it just felt invasive.
The first night in Beijing, all the staring made me incredibly uncomfortable. I avoided making eye contact with anyone. When I did, I’d try to smile. But when nobody smiled back, I decided to change my tactic.
Throughout the trip, I was a bit more assertive. Instead of staring at the ground, I looked up and around and made eye contact with people when I caught them staring. If they were curious, why couldn’t I be curious too?
It took me a while to realize that that was just it.
What I’d initially mistake for rudeness and hostility was simply curiosity. It’s when I understood this that my reaction to the stares began to change. It was easier to not let them get to me and just let people look and soak in the sight of one of the few (maybe the only) black person they’d come across in China.
I began greeting people if I caught them staring and usually they would smile back and say “Ni hao” (hello) or try to engage me in conversation. When I was with an interpreter, interviewees would often interrupt to ask questions about me. Strangers on the street would turn to people in my group who they hoped spoke Chinese to ask about me.
More than anything I wished that I knew the Chinese language just to understand what people were saying about me. I wondered how many ideas and stereotypes about black people were active in China.
I knew that a few stereotypes were in play when an elderly man complimented me on being healthy and then proceeded to ask me about basketball and what sports I did. However, I think the thing most people found interesting about me was my hair. Short and naturally tightly curled, it was drastically different from typically straight Chinese hair. Several people commented on it, some doubted that it was naturally curly and one man asked to touch it and then exclaimed about how soft it was.
I still don’t know what the typical Chinese perception of African Americans is, but the few comments I received about my beautiful hair and my “healthy” figure leads me to believe that most opinions are on the positive side.
The best comment I ever received was when I asked a journalism student at Shanghai University what she thought about people with dark skin like mine. “I think it’s very sexy… and mysterious,” she said, searching for the right words. And then she found them: “It’s like hot chocolate in the hot summer.”