As a young girl, I dreamed of becoming the first female Secretary-General of the United Nations and following in the footsteps of my countryman Kofi Annan. However, I never envisioned being given the role of Ambassador during my college years. But my year abroad in China gave me exactly that -- a practical examination into the world of diplomacy. During my study abroad in China I found myself playing the role of an informal but full-time Ambassador.
Walter Bagehot, a prolific writer and journalist, once opined that “an ambassador is not simply an agent; he is also a spectacle.” That word “spectacle” probably best encapsulates my experience as a black female living and studying in China. With my dark skin and my long braids, I stood out in most of the places I went, and realized during my time in China what it meant to be an “alien.” On a personal level, my year in China forced me to engage in a complex and intimate dance with the concept of identity; on a more global level, my experiences afforded me valuable perspectives on Sino-Africa relations.
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Once, while shopping at a local food market another customer -- upon realizing that I spoke Mandarin -- turned to me and said: “Excuse me, if I may be so bold to ask, in your country do people consider black skin beautiful?” As someone exposed to Western political correctness, I was taken aback by her lack of tact. I responded: “Of course they do and to be honest I wish I were darker.” She was equally aghast at my response and said, “I would never have thought that in my lifetime I would hear someone say all you’ve said. So you really don’t want to become lighter skinned? In China we believe the whiter your complexion is the more beautiful you are and there are many ways to achieve this.” I politely declined her suggestions to bleach my skin.
Another time, a Beijing taxi driver asked me why Africans eat one another and why the continent is so chaotic. Despite my attempt to use facts to dispel these notions, he remained unconvinced. The driver noted the first character for the Chinese word for Africa, “fei” (非), means “to not be; not have; not; wrong; incorrect; lack.” I had never thought about it critically; but upon further reflection I became intrigued as to why another character with the same sound and tone but a more positive meaning was not used instead. It raises the question, how are Africans and Africa regarded in China?
With international focus on Sino-Africa relations sharpening, the official rhetoric in both China and Africa purports a relationship cemented around “brotherhood,” “friendship,” “mutual benefit,” and “solidarity.” But despite the voluminous trade between the African continent and China and the intimate political relations between several African countries and the Chinese administration, on a person-to-person basis, ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance still persist.
Ignorance breeds curiosity, and during my year-long residence in China I felt as though I was part of a circus act. People constantly took pictures of me. Other foreign friends would often joke that I was living the life of a celebrity; that feeling may have lasted for a day, but it quickly becomes annoying in everyday life. Taking the subway -- having cameras flung in my face, being gawked at and becoming the topic of discussion for commuters -- was an indescribable ordeal. While trying to sightsee at the beautiful vistas China is known for, I often became a tourist site myself -- the surprise attraction at the show. It was unsettling to hear people discuss my skin, my hair, and the size of my hands. To preserve my sanity, I found amusement in eavesdropping on people discussing my appearance and then, to their dismay, casually joining their discussion in Mandarin.
I can’t stress enough the number of times I fantasized about snatching and flinging a phone used to take my picture, or going on a Mandarin rant at certain over-inquisitive commuters. But I also became aware that some of the most jaw-dropping behavior -- like rubbing my skin to see if it was dirt or pigment -- came from people who had probably never interacted with a black person before. I was also aware that first impressions are particularly important and so felt responsible for making a good impression. I felt burdened to respond with equanimity lest I validate anyone’s impressions of Africans as barbaric and wild.
Growing up in Ghana, my identity was not based on my skin color. Color was not something one had to think about; it was a given and did not say much about who one was. Race, unlike in the U.S. and China, was more or less a non-factor. Tribe, religion, class, socio-economic status, and lineage had a much greater impact on one’s identity and image than color.
But in China the story was different. There was rarely a day where I didn’t hear people say “Black person” or “African” as I walked by -- it was a fact that people felt compelled to point out to themselves and to others around them. Living under a perpetual spotlight and having various identities thrust upon me, I came to realize that people are only able to fully understand who they are and what their culture is when they are not only challenged but also presented with a contrast. It is the contrast between two cultures that allows you to understand the intricacies and complexities of one and my experience in China afforded me that opportunity.
I was also fortunate to become closely acquainted with a Chinese family that took me under their wing and treated me as a member. I became acquainted with them because I was different, and they were curious. Their curiosity afforded me the chance to share aspects of my culture and the understanding I had about African affairs while also learning about Chinese culture. Our interactions allowed us to obliterate many misconceptions and prejudices on both sides.
Others often ask me if I found Chinese to be racist, and whether their treatment of me as a spectacle -- taking pictures, touching my hair, rubbing my skin, staring at me -- does not indicate a racist attitude. I respond that I find them curious. Many of the experiences I had were borne of ignorance, not racism. Despite always being identified as “black” and “African,” I never felt discriminated against or antagonized, but rather treated with warmth and friendliness. Because I spoke Mandarin, I could often understand what people said about me, and they were rarely disparaging or maligning. On the other hand, some of my friends who have heard about my experiences feel that they reflect a deep lack of respect, and thus racist feelings. I also acknowledge that my experience is not fully reflective of that of other African students, as I never had to seek employment and so was never turned down because employers preferred “white foreigners,” which other African students in China have told me is commonplace.
The ties that hold Africa and China go back to Africa’s independence era -- China was an ally helping to bolster newly independent nations and in fighting liberation wars, while African countries’ support was pivotal in the People’s Republic of China joining the United Nations. But with the increased movement of people across borders, and an intensification of economic relations, the scope and nature of Sino-Africa relations are increasingly becoming personal, no longer limited to high-level economic and political exchanges.
What is sorely missing is cross-cultural understanding. Regardless of whether it’s simply intrigue or racism, it’s clear that misconceptions and ignorance bedevil both sides of the equation. The prospects, however, are encouraging: there are currently over 12,000 African students studying in China on Chinese government scholarships. Hopefully, as more students take up the mantle of cultural ambassador, the awkwardness will subside. I, for one, am happily retired from my position of “awkward ambassador.” But there is more work to be done.
This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.