Traveling while Black in China: The Chinese Quest for Photos

So I had done very little research on traveling to China outside of the China Policy course. This trip would be my first to East Asia and I did wonder what it would be like for a black person to travel to this part of the world—China in particular. I knew most of the group would stand out since a lot of us were obviously foreigners.

For me, it all started at the Great Wall of China. Judging from stares that I received, I definitely seemed to amuse some Chinese Great Wall visitors. This was the scenario: A Chinese women approaches me with a camera. Since we couldn’t communicate through a spoken language, I naturally assumed she asked me to take a picture of her and her family/friends. But no, the group wanted a picture with me. I was taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. “Did they assume I was someone else, perhaps?” “ No, they are probably fascinated by the small amount of black people they encounter…right?” I was in this different country  with so many customs and I didn’t want to offend anyone but I was too uncertain to make a decision. First, did I want photos floating around Weibo (Chinese twitter) or other platforms? How would these photos be used? I didn’t want to support further objectification of black women. Luckily, a classmate pulled me away.   After a few days of traveling and visiting touristy places such as the Forbidden City, the National museum, and Tiananmen  Square, more photo requests ensued. I gave in. Apparently, other classmates had taken a photo with a group so I figured, why not?

Asking a complete foreign stranger to take a picture with you in China is more normal than in the U.S and perhaps other places. Their intentions felt different to me for a variety of reasons. After all, China’s history of self-isolation has limited the amount of expats until recent years. I even got excited when I saw black people in China—a rarity indeed.

At the end of the day, most people were really respectful. They would hug or even bow to me after taking a photo. Some wouldn’t have the courage to ask. They would snap away or sneakingly stand nearby while another person took a photo or “incorporate me” into their selfie (side note: The Chinese have a pretty strong selfie game). I didn’t care too much for that approach.

Leila, MPP

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