PEACE FAWUSI – a ‘Chinese with English Language’ undergraduate at the University of Chester - describes her experiences as a British African woman in China on a one-year exchange studying at the Shanxi Technology and Business College, Taiyuan
As a young, British-African woman, China was an experience. I have never struggled more with answering the question “where are you from?”, than I did when I was asked the question in China. Why? Easy, because I’m black. In a group with my all white friends, we were all asked the same question and gave the same answer. But my skin is different. My hair is different. They see that; the exterior being. A Chinese idiom, yimaoquren means to judge one solely based by their appearance. So, when I answered “Britain”, naturally, they said “no”! Funny thing is, they accepted me being African-American, rather than British-African.
Perhaps I should have introduced myself as Beyoncé then?
Black people are, now more than ever, seen as one entity. A combined force of experience and colour and struggle. A homogenous group, no matter the distance, cultures or even languages between us. In China, if you’ve seen a black person, you’ve seen us all. Actually, if you’ve seen a black person, congratulations, you’ve discovered a rare Pokémon character!
My experience in China as a black person solidified what I had already come to terms with – stardom was not for me. Flashes from the paparazzi, children and adults, the groping – “wow your hair! Wow your skin! Wow you!” – the stares. The constant stares. My tracked online movement was one thing, but constantly feeling eyes on me wherever I went, from across the country to between my dormitory and class; I soon found myself becoming irritable and quick to shut down a photo-op as soon as a phone flashed within two metres of me. Introducing myself as Beyoncé might have made things worse.
I suppose that one of the best things about moving to a foreign country for an amount of time is the fact that it’s like a blank slate. It’s an opportunity to recreate yourself, as no one knows who you were before. I felt like that personal development I was yearning for was taken from me and replaced with a stereotype. Traditionally, blackness in China has been associated with negative qualities. In fact, black, hei, when joined with certain morphemes, unearths language that plagues the meaning of black. Heiren, whilst simply meaning ‘a black person’, also means ‘an undocumented person’. Heixin means ‘a black heart’, heishi ‘black market’, heishehui ‘a gangster organisation’ and heihua, ‘malicious words’. Hei itself also has meanings beyond black: sinister, illegal, shady and so on. I definitely should not introduce myself as Beyoncé.
Creating conversation through cultures
On the other hand, my appearance made me friends! On holiday in a panda and hotpot city, Chengdu, a group of male students our age called to us and asked for a group picture. Another friend and I obliged. I all but threw my WeChat ID in their faces in an effort to make actual Chinese friends and partake in language exchange. A year on and we still text. He has since shared his music with me, the African-American hip-hop and rap he enjoys, ones even I’ve not heard of. On the eight-hour bullet train ride back to our university, the woman I sat next to asked for pictures and after placing an unflattering, whitening filter on us both, we shared WeChat IDs and chatted about our cultures. It was after being introduced to another Chinese woman that the topic of ‘light versus dark’, ‘black versus white’ developed. Recently, she asked if I thought blacks were as beautiful as whites. In China, lightness has traditionally equated to high status. Darker skin meant more time labouring in the fields, thus a lower status. The most attractive man was a “white-faced scholar” - baimianshusheng -and even makeup was colourist. Even Beyoncé, a few shades lighter than I, would have trouble finding the right foundation.
International students from sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana and more, have been flocking to China for at least 70 years. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, with a few isolated incidents between African students and Chinese students in Tianjin, Beijing and Guangzhou Universities. The cause? Definitely not racial tensions. Interestingly enough, in the midst of China and America throwing Covid-19 origination blame at each other, within China, black people were being kicked out of their accommodation. They, we, were being blamed for the second wave of Covid-19 sweeping through the nation, despite tests proving negative. The newest allegation of black people spreading the virus should have hardly been news, though, as in the mid-1980s, Africans in China were falsely rumoured to be spreading AIDs.
I returned home to England at the end of January, halfway through my year abroad placement. I doubt even Beyoncé would want to be introduced as Beyoncé at this point.
My experience in China was a weird one. Overall, I had an unforgettable experience. As I look back on it now, things that annoyed me now make me laugh. I reminisce with mates about children being thrown into our hands for a picture. We also wonder where all those pictures of us may have ended up. In a family room, shared in group chats? With the taxi drivers, we knew - they video-called their friends and their families to show us off. It also makes me sad, because I remember the students from Turkmenistan were harshly discriminated against due to yimaoquren - their appearance. It’s saddening that such a large country, with such political and economic influence and vast cultural integration around us and our everyday lives (food, technology, clothing), progresses seemingly without cultural awareness of other countries and ethnicities.
So, you see, if I had claimed I was Beyoncé Knowles herself, who would have known otherwise?
Written by Peace Fawusi