Article by Idara J. Ekwere
I’m standing in a crowded elevator and all of a sudden I feel my hair move. I glance in the direction of the movement to see an older Chinese lady touching my locks (a.k.a. dreadlocks) in amazement. Another time, when I was out jogging, I came to a stop in front of a group of older Chinese ladies. All of a sudden, one of the braver women walked up and slapped my butt. Surprised, I turned around and saw her smiling and giving me a thumbs up. I smiled back and shook my head. These are just a couple of interactions I’ve had with some of the locals since moving to Xi’an. Many people may not know this side of Xi’an, so I wanted to give my perspective of living here as a black woman.
I’ve drawn a variety of reactions, from amazement to disgust. I don’t mind answering the questions of those who are genuinely curious, but I could do without the negative interactions. Once, when I was flying back to Xi’an from Tai Yuan, a lady sitting in an aisle seat recoiled as I passed, to make sure I didn’t touch her. Especially disheartening are reactions from children who are afraid of me because I look so different. I’m also not a fan of the pointing or the unapproved photos; it makes me feel like passersby think I’m less of a human.
As I was recounting my experiences to friends, I began to wonder how other black, or high-melanin, people deal with situations like that. So, I decided to survey other minority people, four females and one male, to get another perspective. They came to Xi’an from all over the world: South Africa, the United States, and Jamaica We’d all seen different shades of this behavior , from the simple stares to the random photos we didn’t agree to. A couple of respondents said they get very uncomfortable when people point and laugh. One of the women explained that after she posed for a picture with a local, he and his friends began to laugh at the photo. She said,”These are the things that make me less willing to be friendly to people, [because of] the mockery and the jeering, I feel like a zoo animal to them some days.”I fully agreed with that statement. Now I only take photos if I’m with people I know, or presenting at a conference, because I often feel like people think I’m a novelty item at a shop.
Every survey response I read yielded a new story of ignorance and discrimination. Most of the people were English teachers, and a common situation was having parents ask for a different teacher. This occurs because the parents assume that, since the teacher is black, they don’t know how to speak English. One of the people I surveyed told me of how one parent even persuaded other parents to remove their children from her class. I’m happy to say this situation ended well—her school told the antagonizing parent that he could either stay and stop causing issues, or leave. The parent decided to leave the school. Some teachers are not as lucky to have such a supportive administration. One of the women I surveyed explained that the black teachers at her school always have fewer lessons than their white colleagues, to appease the parents.
In the survey, I asked if they felt discriminated against, and all but one said yes. The person who didn’t say yes had only lived in Xi’an for about 11 days, so she replied,“not yet.” One of the women I surveyed said, “I am discriminated against daily, some days it’s just more obvious than others.” She explained that because Xi’an is not her permanent residence, she doesn’t let it affect her or how she feels.
Some of the stories I heard were just rooted in ignorance. For example, someone told me they were talking to their Chinese colleague, who’s also their friend, and jokingly said that if they ever needed a kidney, she’d donate hers. This statement, which was supposed to show how much she cared, was met with confusion. Her Chinese colleague replied that she doesn’t think a black kidney would work. She wasn’t being malicious; she just believes that organs must come from the same race. This shows how sometimes ignorance can still keep us apart.
I got a chance to sit with some of the people I surveyed over dinner and we got a chance to discuss some of our experiences. This helped me understand that my reactions to the behavior of the locals could be just as detrimental as their ignorance. If I react poorly, they’ll believe that all minorities and blacks act the same.
In facilitating these surveys, I met some outstanding people and learned so much. There were so many different perspectives that I couldn’t fit everything I learned in this article. I hope this will show that we’re all just hoping to be treated as individuals, and not based on the color of our skin or because of our home country.
Idara is an independent, strong, Nigerian-American Woman living in Xi’an.