Curious Stares And Culture Shock: What It’s Like To Be A Black Traveler In China
By Rachel George
Over the past few years, my travel itch has kicked into high gear. These days, I look for any excuse possible to hop on a flight to the next destination. I often find myself checking Expedia daily for flight deals, scanning Hopper for cheap times to buy, and checking the #travelnoire hashtag for recommendations on the most popular vacation spots at the moment. I’ve found myself embarking on more international trips — most recently China.
When it comes to visiting foreign countries, My family and friends often ask, “Are you not scared to go over there?” Looking back, they weren’t worried so much about me going to another country, they were more so worried about the reaction that locals would have to seeing a single black woman traveling in spaces where not everyone looks like her.
Being black in China is like being a tourist attraction in itself. I still find myself processing the stern looks an Asian woman gave me on the 13-hour flight from Atlanta to Guangzhou. I’ll never forget the little baby in Hong Kong who pushed his mother out of the way because he could not stop gazing at me.
Despite being the world’s most populous country, China can be considered inexperienced when it comes to embracing minorities and diversity. Prior to going, I read articles about other black people’s experiences including being stared at, having people not want to sit next to them, or being discriminated against and treated poorly. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was prepared for whatever I would receive. Aside from the stares, I questioned every individual who pulled out a phone, thinking they were taking a picture of me. Some actually were and they didn’t hide it. It almost made me feel like a zoo animal on display for all to see.
It reminded me of when I first moved Down South after 14 years of living in New York and being the only black girl in my class. I barely talked for the first few weeks, fearful of the looks I would receive from other students regarding my strong New York accent. So, standing out in a crowd wasn’t new to me.
Jonitha Ward, who traveled to China along with a large group of fellow black business owners, wasn’t bothered by the stares as she walked through the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, the largest import/export trade show in the world. The Canton Fair is the perfect place to build relationships with other business owners looking to begin or expand their brand or product line. Her first interaction with a vendor was a positive one.
“It was great, I found supplies and manufacturers I plan to work with when I start my online boutique and made some new friends too,” she said.
Aaliyah Brown, CEO of Arm Kandy handbag boutique, also attended the fair. Although she enjoyed her time there, she felt a little isolated as a black woman in China.
“I do feel ostracized just a little bit, but the ladies being with me makes me feel better,” she said. “It’s very different here, it’s a culture shock from where we’re used to. To have other black businesswomen here with me, experiencing what I’m experiencing, is comforting.”
Then there was an incident that occurred while I was shopping in the markets one evening. I watched as a black woman was totally given the cold shoulder at a local shop selling scarves, hats, and winter wear. When she entered the store inquiring about a scarf, she was completely dismissed by the clerk, prompting her to leave the store. Shortly after, a Hispanic woman went into the same shop and was greeted with open arms, a big smile, and was offered assistance from the same clerk. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It opened my eyes and made me realize that racial discrimination takes place all over the world, not just America.
Despite my initial feelings, there was one defining moment on my trip that helped me understand the cultural differences. It wasn’t until I went to Hong Kong that I realized that the direct stares and constant glances I was receiving didn’t come from shock and awe but from a place of pure curiosity.
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While in Hong Kong, I climbed up 268 stairs to reach the Tian Tan Buddha, also known as “the Big Buddha,” at the Po Lin Monastery. It’s the largest outdoor Buddha and symbolizes Hong Kong’s stability, the prosperity of China, and peace on earth. It was an amazing experience of prayer, reflection, and spirituality. It concluded with me taking tons of unexpected photos with people I did not know. It became a major turning point of the entire trip and I no longer took issue with feeling like an outsider.
Every experience is different. Some people may face challenges when it comes to accepting the strange looks. Others will meet those looks with understanding and patience. It isn’t easy being a foreigner in a country where your appearance places you on a pedestal for all to view. However, I began to see it as being appreciated for standing out in a crowd; something we don’t get enough appreciation for in America.