I often get asked about my experiences living in China and Taiwan as a black woman. The question usually goes something like, “What’s it like being in China…I heard that the Chinese are really racist, what was it like for you?” or “What was your experience living in China as a black woman“- I get these questions or similar versions of this question a lot via my Instagram account (@tanyaweekes) and Facebook (tanyaweekesphotography).
I have been living in Asia on and off in the past three years, beginning with Taiwan for the first year and then onto China, where I was up until February 2020. Before I share my thoughts, let me start by saying that my my thoughts are just that, my thoughts and experiences, individual to me and so other black women or women of colour may experience or feel something else.
So, to the question, “What’s it like living in China as a Black Woman?” as a quick answer, I will say it’s fun, interesting and at times tedious. Tedious because sometimes, you’re not in the mood to be stared at. There are times, you just want to do what you’re doing and not feel conscious or paranoid of people looking at you. That being said, let me break it down further, the good and the not so good – my experience living in China and Taiwan.
In China and Taiwan, I experienced staring, although, I don’t think it’s only because I’m black, more because I’m a foreigner. Whether you’re black, white or brown, you will get stared at if you don’t look like you’re from China. People staring is one of the things that I’ve come to accept in China although I have to admit, I find it strange. It’s as if some people have literally never seen a black person before, ever. Of course, maybe they haven’t, or maybe only on TV? The reason I find it strange is because there are black people in China especially in major cities like Nanjing, where I was. A lot of the ESL teachers and students are black and there is an area in China known as “Little Africa” due to the high proportion of West African migrants. Also basketball is a big thing, when living in Tawian, people were familiar and looked up to all the American black basketball players.
In China, staring on the Metro is a regular thing. I’ve learned to zone it out and occasionally film that in the process in an attempt to make them stop. I have also had people walk up to me while I’ve been sat in a park and just stare me up and down (see videos below).
Riding the Metro in China, don’t be surprised if you get stared at like this.
Older folks especially, have no subtlety when it comes to staring.
The staring also happens when you’re minding your own business, sat at a park.
Unsurprisingly, the staring is worse in areas where there are less tourists. When there are less tourists, young children will run to their parents whisper, point and say, “Wàiguó rén” which means foreigner. In England, people don’t usually carry on staring once you’ve made eye contact. In China, eye contact doesn’t stop or deter the staring, they just carry on the same way. The staring is usually worse when I have my hair out in an afro – people are generally fascinated with my hair.
Following on from staring, people will often taken your photo. Sometimes sneakily, sometimes blatantly. Sometimes, they ask, which is refreshing and I will generally oblige if I’m in the mood. I remember an occasion, when I was walking around a store and there was a man following me with his toddler. He didn’t speak any English but he picked up his son and wanted me to hold him so that he could take a picture with me. I don’t think this is exclusive to black women, again I think this is simply because I am different and so that is interesting and the culture in China and Taiwan is to do that although, I found Taiwan a lot friendlier and more laid back in general.
Being asked for photographs at NiuShouShan Temple in Nanjing, China.
If you follow my blog, you will know that a lot of the time, I will wear my hair out, in an afro. Usually this will mean even more staring and people talking and looking. Not very often, but now and again, I had instances where people tried to touch my hair which is annoying. Especially when people think that it’s okay, to do so without asking.
People often ask me if I experience any racism, that they hear that Chinese don’t like black people. In my experience, I have had a couple of experiences of rude behaviour and treatment that left me thinking, “What’s their problem?!” and of course led me wondering, “Is it because I’m black?”. To be honest, I don’t know. Most of my encounters with Chinese people have been fine. I feel like, in England, we are quite polite, especially with strangers. We have a lot of niceties but I think the culture is different in China and sometimes it’s easy to perceive the lack of niceties as racist, especially as a black woman and having certain stereotypes in the back of our minds. That being said, no doubt China does have it’s fair share of racists, like anywhere else but generally speaking the people I have met so far have not shown that. I have been invited to meals at restaurants and at their homes multiple times.
It’s very easy to move abroad and only make friends with other English-speaking foreigners. Especially if there is already an existing community of ex-pats. In China and Taiwan, I had a mixture of both. In Taiwan, I met an amazing woman called Julie (pictured below) while I was wandering around an art gallery by myself. She didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Chinese, but that didn’t let that stop her. She phoned her English teacher, Wendy on her mobile and had me speak to her. Her teacher asked me how I was finding Taiwan and I mentioned that I felt a bit lonely and was missing dancing. She then mentioned that Julie took belly dancing classes and that maybe I would like to join her. Julie ended up taking me to her dance class where I met a whole bunch of lovely ladies and ended up joining their group.
Most of the ladies didn’t speak English, but they were so lovely and welcoming. To be honest, I did feel like I was the centre of attention a lot of the time, like everyone was watching me but that aside, they were really sweet and when I attended my last class, they surprised me with a cake.
Along with Julie, who really took me under her wing, I also met Ella (pictured below) who I regularly had lunch with after the class – Ella kindly let me photograph her for a portrait session, feel free to check that out here.
In China, I made friends by joining a group called, “Foreign Talent Association” (FTA for short) which focused on exploring the city of Nanjing with weekly meet-ups with a mixture of Chinese folks and foreigners. I met some really great people on those meet-ups that I went on to meet up with outside of the weekly meet-ups.
As much as I find the staring annoying, people are generally complementary. I don’t speak Chinese, but one word I hear people say often to me is, “pulian” which I have learned translates as beautiful. In Taiwan, people were generally friendlier generally wanted to have conversations. There was a curiosity about where I had come from. I find this less in China, but still people are complimentary.
The next couple of pictures are of when we went to visit Wuxi in China. I was sat down and these two women noticed me and wanted to take a picture. They had a friendly, happy vibe about them so I agreed. They kept saying, “pulian, pulian”.
While they were taking pictures, an older Chinese walked by and stood staring, he said something in Chinese. Whatever he said, it angered the women and I remember them saying something back to him in a tone that made the man walk away. Not sure what that was about, but the ladies were giving me protective auntie vibes. They seemed nice enough.
Whilst living in Taiwan, I was given the opportunity to model in a couple of catwalk shows which was interesting. I was the only black woman there but I didn’t feel like I was treated any differently. It was a fun time and I made some new friends.
In China, I also had opportunities to attend blogging events where I was invited to stay the weekend in new part of China and share my experiences. It was a really insightful trip and I got to learn more about a new part of China and make some new friends.
So that is my experience so far, living in China and Taiwan as a black woman. Check out my last post about my experience living in China during the coronavirus outbreak if you haven’t already: http://www.tanyaweekes.com/living-in-shenzhen-china-during-the-corona-virus-covid-19-outbreak/