Monaye, Amirah, J’Lynn, and Mathapelo are all Black English teachers in China. They are all American except Mathapelo, who is South African. And with nothing but a couple of suitcases, a passport, and a plane ticket, they left their comfortable lives at home to embark on an ambiguous journey to teach, travel, and live life to the fullest.
As these women will tell you, being Black in China is a different experience for everyone. Their stories of prejudice and privilege offer some insight into what it’s like to be a Black person living in China. Through discomfort and occasional demeaning experiences, they all learned to be strong self-advocates and to focus on the idea that they were playing a part in people becoming more connected and comfortable with one another. Read on to see their words of wisdom for other Black travelers heading to China, an experience they each agree is ultimately worth it.
1. How and why did you decide to move to China?
Monaye: I got an email from a company saying that they wanted to employ me to teach in China. I had heard of this kind of opportunity before, so it piqued my interest. I decided that if I didn’t land one of the jobs I was previously interested in before the day of my flight, then I would go teach in China. That’s what ended up happening!
Amirah: I already had a desire to move abroad and had really enjoyed a previous visit to China.
J’Lynn: I was already looking for English teaching jobs, although China wasn’t at the top of my list. When I was left to decide between China or Russia, I presumed China would be a safer and more comfortable environment for me as a Black woman. It was a long process but not a difficult decision.
Mathapelo: I was curious and eager to experience something new. Back home I worked with kids, and I wondered what it would be like to teach abroad.
2. Can you tell me about the first time you felt that you stood out as a Black person while living in China?
Monaye: Foreigners in general stand out in China. Chinese people openly stare all the time — being a person of darker complexion makes me stand out more. I noticed it from day one. Once my DiDi (Chinese Uber) driver took my photo without permission. This was the first time I was really offended.
Amirah: When I first landed at the airport. I felt like a celebrity; everyone was staring and taking pictures of me.
J’Lynn: I knew I stood out as soon as I boarded the plane to go to China. People sitting near me directed long glances, curious as to why I might possibly be going to China. It wasn’t until I was in Ningbo (New Tier 1 city), though, that I felt like a real outsider amongst the Chinese. Stares from children and older men were unavoidable. I specifically remember two older Chinese women standing right in front of me in a line, giggling and sneaking looks at me. It didn’t bother me too much at the time, it was just peculiar. But eventually this “alien” treatment did become extremely uncomfortable.
Mathapelo: It’s funny, because we stand out everywhere as Black people. The first time I think I felt it was when I started working at my job. We had a cooking class (myself and my colleague who is white), and our assistant went to him and said that one child’s parents wanted the white teacher to take more interest in their daughter. After the class, I started playing with the kid, and the parents directed the kid’s attention away from me and to the other teacher. Honestly, I should have been hurt, but all I could do was laugh.
3. What was the most memorable experience, good or bad, you have encountered as a Black foreigner?
Monaye: A good experience was visiting an ancient town in the surrounding Ningbo area. We happened to come on a Chinese Valentine’s day. A couple of friends (a Black American male and a South African Indian female) and I were walking towards the town after buying a ticket when a car drove by asking if we wanted to go to a festival. They sat us in the front row where multiple couples were getting fake married for a TV show. Everyone was really interested in us and they spoke English well. Afterward, they gave us a free tour of the town and treated us to lunch. An elderly woman even said it warmed her heart to see foreigners there. They then took us to a food festival and drove us back to the train station for free. It was the best day that I had there.
Amirah: The first time I visited China I was 16 and came with other students from my high school. We went to visit a historical site in Yunnan Province and a group of Chinese people surrounded us (a group of black students). The Chinese group grew so large that the security at the site had to direct them away from us while the white students were completely left alone.
J’Lynn: My most memorable experience would be working as a foreign panelist for an English training school in Ningbo. The instructor would ask me questions about being American; but occasionally she’d ask me personal questions about whatever else she was curious about, revealing some preconceived notions that were incredibly offbase. She assumed our bodies were biologically different, down to our organs, and asked in front of an entire class how I wash my hair. She was constantly mesmerized by my ability to speak perfect English, even knowing I was born and raised in America. To illustrate a grammar point for the class, she played a German rap video of a black man rapping from behind the bars of a jail cell about always being incarcerated and shot at by police. She chose to show this video completely unaware of the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement was at its peak in America, and seemed to think I would automatically know this song and like it already. She was completely baffled to learn this black artist was a German man, not an American.
The most positive memories are from any day spent with my kids and local friends. They make me feel so loved. Recently one of my students colored a coloring page character’s skin brown. He didn’t even think to show it to me, but it made me really happy that the brown crayon fit a natural skin tone in his mind. The others usually leave the skin parts white or paint them a crazy color, but never once have I seen any child in China positively acknowledge brown skin. It made me feel like my two years here might have made some kind of difference. Another time my older students brought up the Black Lives Matter movement and asked me what was going on. We spent some time discussing it, and I’ll always remember how that was a space that might never have been created had I not been here.
Mathapelo: My bad experiences usually stemmed from the way I was treated at work. I think that’s where I felt it the most. Not even the other foreigners could sympathize with my experience, making me feel very isolated.
4. How does being Black back home and being Black in China differ?
Monaye: Chinese people are often fascinated, and have no qualms about expressing it by staring. There is also a lot of xenophobia now with COVID-19, but that does not apply exclusively to black foreigners. I feel that I receive more xenophobia, however, because my foreignness is exaggerated by my dark skin. With men, I’m treated as exotic which is not different from when I’m back in the States. There is more overt racism at home, but I also blend in more easily there.
Amirah: I don’t fear for my safety in China like I did back in America, however I have had a horrible experience with self-esteem. I am constantly made to feel lesser because I am not white even if I am more qualified than a white peer. I am also having to manage relationships with other foreigners who also have their own ideas about Black people and Black Americans. I’m constantly interpreted as the face of an entire group of people while simultaneously trying to grow in relationship with myself and express my individuality.
J’Lynn: Being Black in America is a complicated feeling. It’s assumed to be the first and most critical part of my identity. As proud as I am of my Blackness, growing up I also felt like it was just a place in some kind of capitalist caste system. In China, being foreign is the first and most critical part of my identity. Though I don’t ‘belong’ here, it’s more peaceful because I’m fully aware that I’m not meant to belong here. In China I’m anonymous, random; no one expects me to be anything besides what I present myself as. In America, I’m a Black woman who has to deconstruct and rebuild people’s preconceived notions of who I’m supposed to be. I’m expected to prove that I belong. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and at times heartbreaking. Also, in China I’m not afraid of the police.
Mathapelo: Being Black anywhere is a struggle. Whether I am in South Africa or anywhere else. The difference is that I don’t stand out in South Africa. There are more people that look like me, unlike in China. Here, people are always taking pictures, touching your hair and staring at you. There is no space.
5. What advice would you give to another Black person looking to travel or live in China?
Monaye: Be prepared to be stared at and even touched. Have thick skin. There are some bad experiences, but some are so wonderful that it evens everything out. Adjusting is made easier when you embrace being stared at and pointed out. Try to do so if you can.
Amirah: Have thick skin, bring a lot of hair products, know that you are beautiful and worthy and be prepared to have to fight like hell for what you want. If you can’t self-advocate, you won’t survive.
J’Lynn: Come! Experience it. You’ll face more racism from other foreigners than you will the Chinese. Chinese people are curious but not hostile. They’ll be as excited to show you their culture as you are to learn it. Don’t let the fear of being different stop you from doing something different.
Mathapelo: I would tell them to go for it. The world is big enough for all of us. They too have a right to go wherever they want. I would say, ‘China is very different. You will go through a lot of racial prejudice. But you have to find a way to see past all that. There are so many nice people here. There are wonderful things to experience and beautiful places to see. So no matter what, just focus on the positive, always!’
Have you ever taught a language abroad? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comment section!