In a country of 1.3 billion people, 92% of them being from one ethnic group, foreigners stand out like unicorns. Especially dark skinned foreigners. Though I have been foreign in other countries, all have been countries where black people are the demographic majority. People would only react to my foreignness after hearing my accent or after realizing I can’t speak the local language. In China however, one look at my 黑皮肤(hei pifu)/black skin is all it takes for the questions to begin flooding my way, after they ask for pictures of course…
Where are you from?
“马拉维?” “在非洲” “哦哦非洲!”//”Malawi?” “In Africa” “Oh! Africa!” is pretty much how most of my conversations begin. As far as Africa goes, the Chinese I meet know very few countries. Quite a few know Zambia because of the TAZARA railway that China built in the mid 70s, as well as Kenya and Ethiopia because of their famous long distance runners, DRC because of the civil war and everyone knows South Africa because of the 2010 world cup. I’m always the first Malawian they’ve met.
Follow up questions include: What languages do you speak in Malawi? What kind of food do you eat there? How long does it take to get there? What’s your economy like? Nothing is off limits for them. I’ve been asked if my country has enough food to eat, if all Africans are poor, if I come from a wealthy home and if my country is at war. These type of questions are a result of the Africa they have seen through the media. It’s mainly been shown as a poor, starved, war torn continent that is always receiving some kind of financial assistance from China and they assume if I made it here I must be from a rich family. Telling them I’m on scholarship is a detail I sometimes leave out just because it doesn’t help the stereotype of Africans being assisted all the time. I have however also met some Chinese who have been to Africa and they have nothing but good things to say about it.
Is it very hot there?
The question about our climate is a very popular one. Now of course we do get longer periods of warm/hot weather than the northern hemisphere but it is not hotter temperature wise. Temperatures in Boading city range between 35-40 °C during summer, the atmosphere becomes stuffy and the wind is hot. It’s the kind of heat you can’t hide from, shade doesn’t help only an air con can save you. It’s a relentless and suffocating heat. Summer in more humid areas in the south of China is just as bad, from the moment you step outdoors you start to sweat. However shade does offer refuge there and they get gusts of cool wind. The other difference between the north and south is that in the south you can feel the sun on your skin, the north is often under a haze of pollution which seems to block that effect.
Now Africa on the other hand is hot, but generally not hotter. The assumption is our temperatures are always above 40 °C and some even assume that is why our skin is darker (makes me wonder if they never learn about skin pigmentation in biology class). The Chinese tend to fear the sun and in summer most ladies will cover up to avoid tans. For most, dark skin is associated with being a low class here because it means you probably spend a lot of time doing some kind of manual labor in the sun.
How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Do you have children? How much allowance do you get a month?
The questions can get really personal too, not because they are nosy but because in Chinese culture these questions are not considered private. They are very open people and sometimes lighthearted conversations with friends can get personal really quickly. I have found myself awkwardly stumbling through conversations about breakups, marriage problems, money issues etc. I would only have such type of conversations with very close friends back home.
Are you used to living in China? How do you find the food? Which is better, China or your country?
For most Chinese this is the world and that’s actually OK because China has a lot to offer. One can lead a very full life here in a Chinese bubble without having to cross the border. Chinese food, for example, is as complex and rich as their history, in my 2 years here I’ve barely scratched the surface. But they are of course aware that there’s a whole other world out there and wonder how it compares to the Middle Kingdom. The only country they seem to confident may be better than China is America. Their faces light up when talking about trips they’ve taken there or plan to. I suppose this is because they watch a lot of American produced movies and series and America has always been pretty good at selling itself through TV.
What are you doing in China? Are you a 外教(waijiao)/foreign teacher?
Most foreigners in small Chinese cities are either University students or English teachers. There are some who have other types of jobs but that’s mainly in the big cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. In my city, Baoding, I’ve only met 2 foreigners who are here for reasons not related to school or teaching English. The Chinese are really eager to learn English and if you are foreign and know English, they will try and seize the opportunity to practice with you. Most are adept at reading and writing (it is compulsory to pass an English language exam to graduate from University) but are lacking in conversational English.
Is that your real hair?
Black girls get this question all the time when their hair is braided which is very often. When I first came I would answer with a simple “No”, but overtime I have had to pick up the vocabulary to explain how braids are done and how long it takes, that I can wash them as is, that they are removed after a month or so not every night, that they are not heavy, that my natural hair has the ability to shrink so no I’m not always cutting it, that my natural hair grows out of my head the way it does etc. My teachers or Chinese friends who spend a lot of time with me don’t broach the subject early on but sooner or later they can’t resist asking. Some are mesmerized with the fro or my braids to the point of wanting to touch and play with my hair. Some are rude about it, touching without asking or without even talking to me first and they usually receive a friendly scolding from me. However, seeing as they are surrounded by people who all have straight jet black hair, I’m usually happy to introduce them to the complex world of black hair!
Can I take a picture with you?
I have learnt a plethora of ways to say “Can I have a picture with you?” in Chinese simply from hearing it so much. Some are brave enough to ask in English but breathe a huge sigh of relief when I respond in Chinese. The worst place to say yes is at a tourist location, once you let one group take photos the rest start flooding in. I once went to watch a short concert here in Baoding by a band from Ivory Coast. After the concert was over the audience flooded the stage in order to get pictures with the band. I also went in an attempt to talk to them but 5 minutes later I found myself also being asked for pictures. Within seconds I had a queue next to me with phones ready for selfies with me. Some try to secretly take pictures which is extremely irritating. I purposely cover my face when I catch them or tell them off for it.
And that pretty much summarizes my conversations with Chinese people here in Baoding. On the whole they are very friendly and I have never been offended or encountered racism. It varies from city to city, in the bigger cities black/foreign people are seen quite often so they won’t look twice. However, in smaller cities and tourist locations, I always expect to be excitedly approached for a few questions and a picture.