I’ve never understood the term People of Color.
This term groups us collectively, as if we were a community, so to speak. Without a doubt, we have all faced some form of discrimination, especially as it pertains to standards of beauty. But, the reason I choose not to use this term is that I’m living in a country with “People of Color”. We are in no way grouped, nor do they see me as one of them.
My experience of being a student in China is not a negative one. Financially, the Chinese government has provided affordable education and yearly grants. However, being a Black student in China is not for the weak. Some of the people I have encountered do not know much about life beyond the Great Wall. They draw their assumptions about race based on what Hollywood portrays. Trying to change that narrative is often very difficult and at times, seems futile.
Many are surprised when they discover that Jamaica has a vibrant Chinese community. They came as entrepreneurs, but started families and continued Chinese culture intertwined with our very own. Some Jamaicans now celebrate Chinese New Year and to my surprise, they are well-versed in using chopsticks. Not only do we exchange traditions, but also languages.
The Jamaican and Chinese government are so connected that many tertiary institutions on the island have Chinese teachers tasked to teach Mandarin. The National Police College also offers Mandarin classes to improve communication between the police force and the Chinese community. Needless to say, they have also taken a liking to our local language, patois. Because of how tightly woven our countries are, it was not odd to anyone when I decided to come here to study.
What the movies also do not prepare you for is how different you will look.
Movies do not give Chinese engineers and architects enough credit. I came expecting to see very traditional, old, tattered buildings and everyone wearing Hanfu. Instead, I saw modern architecture, a top-tier transportation system; everything ran on time and was really organized. There are some places that have retained the traditional architecture but it’s mostly for tourists. The only thing that matched my expectations was that they, in fact, do use chopsticks all the time. In Jamaica, when I bought Chinese food it was usually to-go, and when I got home I just used a fork. It took me 3 months to learn how to eat rice with my chopsticks. Even now, I still prefer using a spoon to eliminate the struggle.
Okay, obviously I expected to look different but I did not expect to feel different. Walking on the street, I would catch people trying to sneak pictures of me. Those who were a little more courageous came and asked me for a picture and sometimes to hold their babies. At first, it was a bit odd but I relished the moments when I could stick my hand out and say “No pictures please” as the cameras flashed. It was like I was a celebrity, without the red carpet. But, after 5 years, it’s exhausting. I just want to get my groceries without being stared at.
“I am forced to remind myself that I am not at the bottom of the ladder, I am the ladder.”
Growing up in Jamaica, wearing my afro out was not acceptable at all. In fact, I struggled so much with my hair that during high school, I got it permed. Now, I love it and I feel it is a part of my identity. However, I know wearing it out means there will be a lot of stares and questions which I try my best to understand and answer. What I wasn’t prepared for was the occasional person that comes along who touches and tugs it to examine its peculiar nature. They often cause a scene and encourage others to ‘pet’ me as well. It is at that moment that I’m forced to be kind, patient, suppress my anger and simply walk away.
In China, every Black woman you meet is a hairdresser. The salons here don’t know how to care for black hair. I have never been to them but I have friends who were turned away or they ended up looking like a whole mess! Being here forced me to learn how to braid, deep condition and do perms. Skills that I would have never acquired back home because there was no need for it. Chinese people particularly love our braids and plaits. On several occasions, I have been to bars and seen them sporting dreadlocks. They know that hairstyle is deeply rooted in Black culture and always beam with pride when I compliment them on it.
In my 5 years here I’ve met so many people and answered so many questions about my hair, eyes and skin color. I have met people who refused to believe that I am not from Africa nor have I ever visited the continent. On numerous occasions, I was told that the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are. I’ve seen modeling agencies advertise jobs that pay white models two times more than black models. I’ve been asked if my skin was dirty and if that was the reason it was so dark.
Being here I am forced to recognize my own beauty. I am forced to remind myself that I am not at the bottom of the ladder, I am the ladder. It is easy to lose yourself and your own identity when you are far away from everyone you know and love. But, I also see it as an opportunity to share my culture, kind spirit and to help them understand us more.
In 2017, I joined an English corner. Its primary focus was to have a dialogue with young Chinese people. I used this opportunity to talk about where I’m from, my family values and to explain the diversity amongst Black people. I desperately wanted everyone to see that we are so much more than what Hollywood paints us out to be. Many of these young people eventually left to study in the UK and USA and they thanked me for making their transition a little smoother. In the face of adversity, it’s often hard to be kind but it is worth it when you are able to impact at least one person’s life.