Exactly one year ago I was in Beijing for the very first time. Up to that point, I had never even been to Asia. I had no idea what to expect before my trip, I was especially concerned about my race, but did not anticipate it defining my experience the way it did. Traveling in Beijing with my old college roommate, who looks Chinese but was born and raised in New York, I became more aware of my race than I had ever been before. Everywhere we went I found myself the subject of unwelcomed stares and even more alarming, the subject of photographs taken by local tourists. Due to the language barrier, both my friend and I could not answer questions from curious locals, nor satisfy our own curiosity about people’s reaction to my black skin and braided hair. During these encounters we politely smiled and used the little Chinese we knew to explain that we were “měiguó,” American. Over the course of the trip, I found that I was mentally, emotionally, and physically drained from struggling to understand how I was being interpreted in this new context. Although I understood that as a foreigner, it was my responsibility to make the effort to engage with my new context and extract the answers to the questions I had, it took some time for me to push myself to have experiences in China that were not defined by my race.
While preparing for this second trip to Beijing, I had all the concerns from my first trip in mind however, I was ready this time. I knew that my blackness would attract attention, but I was determined not to let it define my experience. As I walked around with my 14 classmates of different races and ethnicities, I began to realize that collectively we attracted attention. Even when we sat casually by the Tiananmen Square East train station, local tourists took the opportunity to take pictures with the group as a whole without asking. Although at times my 2 black classmates and I received special attention, this was nothing compared to my experience just one year before. I was not the sole subject of attention this time, but our group as a whole drew attention. It was a welcome relief to 1) see my classmates have a small taste of my experience and 2) have people who could empathize with the frustration that comes with being foreign in Beijing. The second time around was made easier because of the group of peers who helped me feel a little less visible even though when together we were very visible.
Traveling while black is not always easy in some parts of the world. Parts of China, like Guangzhou, are seeing an influx of African immigrants who are helping expose isolated areas to diversity. What my two trips to China have taught me is the importance of exposure and understanding of diversity for all people in all settings.